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‘Dead Poets Society’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 09, 1989


Peter Weir
Robin Williams;
Robert Sean Leonard;
Norman Lloyd;
Ethan Hawke
Parental guidance suggested
Original Screenplay

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I wish Robin Williams had been my English teacher. Perhaps Tomorrow-and-tomorrow-and-tomorrow wouldn't have been quite so dreary. Of course, I wouldn't have learned a thing . . .

In "Dead Poets Society," Peter Weir's (and screenwriter Tom Schulman's) touching private-school requiem for free thinking, he is the English teacher -- come to shake the Academy down, come to show 'em that somewhere among the three Rs is an immensely pleasurable P for poetry.

This solid, smart entertainment will shake you down too -- in the good sense. You'll be reaching for Shelley. Okay, maybe you won't reach for Shelley (unless you're sitting next to someone named Shelley). You'll go home and fall asleep -- but before you do, you'll feel like maybe you want to read poetry. Sometime. Meanwhile, you'll love the movie.

Before you run off expecting "Robin Williams Live": He not only turns in an acting performance (and a nicely restrained one at that), but he's not on screen half the time. "Poets" is about his influence, or teacher John Keating's influence, on a crop of impressionable young lads at Vermont's "Welton Academy" (actually Delaware's St. Andrew's), where learning is something you take twice daily, so you can wake up a doctor in the morning.

When new professor Keating, a Welton alumnus, brings in his subversive modus operandi (he starts by insisting his class tear out the club-headed introduction to a poetry book), it's academic liberation from then on. He has them march in circles, stand up on their desks (to see things from another perspective) and generally question conventional thinking. Little by little, his pupils (a fine classroomful of young performers -- Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen and others) spread their wings.

Sure, the heroes (Williams and the Disciples of Smug) and villains (academic crustaceans and med-school-pushing parents) are arranged in a convenient moral gallery. But the performances, Weir's adroit direction and John Seale's superb cinematography take care of that banality.

"Poets' " conclusion, a tragic affair, is foreshadowed early in the syllabus -- but if you've lived more than five minutes (and they won't let you into the theater otherwise), you already know that most romantic flights of fancy inevitably crash-land. And, in any case, "Poets" also ends with an uplifting note that peals a bell for intellectual freedom, creativity and, if nothing else, more Robin Williams movies.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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