I’m not sure if Dead Poets Society was the first major film to offer the story of the “inspiring teacher” but it has certainly been done many times since. In movies from Freedom Writers to Dangerous Minds, the idea of disillusioned kids being surprised by a teacher’s passion, unique teaching style and then changing their own lives and viewpoints because of it, isn’t a new idea or concept.
The success of this idea depends on two things: the teacher that is at the centre of the story and the students that are being inspired. Dead Poets Society succeeds in one respect but falters with the other. The success of the movie is, of course, the teacher, played by Robin Williams.
Robin Williams is an inspired choice for an inspirational teacher, with poetry at the core of his passion. He can go from quiet and reserved, to crazy and boisterous, all in one scene. He begins with the former, taking his students to see the pictures of their predecessors and introducing the motto of the movie – Carpe Diem (Sieze the Day).
From here he helps the students to come out of their shells and be individuals. This can be with a unique take on marching or by getting the students to stand on their desks in an attempt to see the world from a different viewpoint. It’s all quite minor when it comes to teaching today but in the face of the stuffy authorities who run the school, the ideas seem revolutionary.
Robin Williams is a great casting choice but this isn’t a comedy movie. In fact, it’s one of his less funny roles considering the free reign he probably had with some of the “inspiring” scenes. The movie is actually very little about Williams, and is much more about the students he is inspiring.
Unfortunately, this is the fault with the movie. The students he is inspiring come from privileged, well-mannered backgrounds, with little “real” difficulties. He isn’t working with inner-city kids, trying to escape a background of violence or drugs, who have become disillusioned with education and school. When Robin Williams walks into his classroom, the students are silently waiting for his next move.
The back stories of the students, as a whole, don’t scream for inspiration. Robert Sean Leonard’s character has an overbearing Father, Ethan Hawke’s Todd struggles with confidence and Josh Charles’ Knox uses the Carpe Diem mantra to help him with girls. These aren’t troubled youths, these are kids with normal, everyday problems that actually become more complicated with the involvement of their new teacher.
There is drama here, and it is very well acted by all involved, but because the teachings lack any, true emotional impact, (save for Leonard’s character, in probably the harshest and most extreme way), it is more difficult to care about what will happen to the characters. The best aspects of the movie are the lessons but beyond that, the actions of the students don’t really ring true.
You can see why it is a Robin Williams classic and it is helped hugely by the late actors involvement, dragging it beyond the average to something slightly more special but not by much. The movie suffers when he isn’t on-screen or even worse, when he isn’t teaching.
Overall, Dead Poets Society is a success for Robin Williams as he shows his dramatic side, not reliant on comedy but pushing a much more restraint, serious message. The scenes where he is teaching and inspiring the students makes the movie watchable. Unfortunately, out of the classroom, the movie lacks any real emotional weight and the actions of the students hardly seem worth the inspiration they’ve received.
Rating – 3
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)