Dead Poets Society

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Both The Mosquito Coast and Weir’s next feature, Dead Poets Society (1989), foreground fathers myopically invested in misguided personal aspirations. A significant critical and commercial success, Dead Poets Society is a period piece set in the 1950s in Welton College, a private boys school, at the heart of New England’s establishment. It is a study in the mechanisms with which the ruling class absorbs and expels rebellious influences before proceeding undeterred in its primary mission of reproducing itself. As in Picnic, Weir introduces eager young lives both oozing potential and straining under expectation. In both period pieces Weir deftly establishes the restrictive weight of the institution’s traditions through repeated interior, constricted compositions. Here, however, the challenge to the status quo, far from being a mysterious force, is an enthusiastic, unconventional teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), who nevertheless will play a role in leading the boys to a traumatic awakening. Keating’s passion for literature moves his students to personal quests of self-expression: “Make your lives extraordinary”, he pleads. The film evokes the American spirit of democratic self-actualisation, as epitomised by the poet Walt Whitman, a portrait of whom Keating displays in his classroom and gestures toward when inciting the boys to emulate his free spirit. Inspired by Keating, the boys re-establish the “Dead Poets Society”, a club that Keating himself had participated in when a student at Welton. They convene at night in the romantic setting of a nearby cave and share poetry.

Keating’s encouragement proves most successful with one of the “Dead Poets”, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), a teenager so neglected by his parents that he is fearful of human interaction, and petrified of public speaking. Weir subtly conveys the evolving effect Keating’s presence has on Todd, through dexterous camera placement in a series of scenes. In the initial scene, Todd chases his...
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