Dead Poets Society (1989)

When it’s on: Thursday, 28 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, mine parents seized upon the idea of fast-tracking me into one of the prestigious Universities by sending me to a distinguished boarding school. The place was hateful, filled with traditional values and stuffy professors, but it was the sort of place that fed into the higher levels of academia and from there the stars.

The days were long, boring and uniform. Times for getting up and going to bed were strictly regimented. The lessons were stuffy and lifeless, designed to ‘parrot’ us into getting the best results. Only the English teacher was different. He had been taught at our school, years before, and his every lesson seemed to rebel against the staid uniformity that made up our lives. Ordering us to rip out the pages of our tedious textbooks and taste literature for ourselves, he taught us nothing less than to love life and to express that affection in our use of the English language.

I was a shy boy in those days, but my room-mate was the life and soul of our dorm. He decided to follow in the footsteps of our English teacher by revising his late night poetry reading club, which we held in a cave just outside the school grounds. My room-mate was a good friend and an artist, but his background was even more repressed than mine. His wish was to take part in a play run by a local dramatic society, but his father refused to give the necessary permission. He did it anyway. Another friend fell in love with a girl from a public school who was seeing a member of the football team. He wrote a poem dedicated to her, marched into her class and, in front of all her friends read it out loud. The girl was mortified. In any other story, she might have told him where to go, or passed on to her boyfriend what he’d done. But not this time. In the meantime, my room-mate starred in the play. His dad turned up to watch, took him home afterwards and I learned later that my friend had shot himself rather than face the hell of an education leading to a top University.

We were all made to answer questions about the tragedy later, led in one by one to see the Head Teacher, who looked like an aged version of the saboteur from Saboteur. His aim was to get rid of the English teacher, the one he saw as responsible for inspiring my room-mate to appear in the play and therefore involved in his death. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault. He taught us more than mere English. We might not have learned enough to pass anything as staid as an exam, but we learned something better – that he was our captain…

None of the above actually happened. I made the whole thing up, appropriating the story of Ethan Hawke’s character to poke fun at Dead Poets Society. It’s always fun to catch up once again with films I saw years before and find out if they were as good as I thought back then. This one isn’t. It’s well made (Peter Weir doesn’t direct enough films, and when he does they’re invariably interesting), but it’s highly manipulative and doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. The characters are moved about to satisfy the emotional demands made on the plot. I had no idea what the point of Robin Williams’s classes were, apart from to entertain the boys.

Perhaps I liked it back then because I was roughly the age of the teenagers themselves. I might have dreamed of teachers who used their periods for freewheeling fun and life lessons rather than, you know, the curriculum, but now it all seems slightly ridiculous, with its portrayal of every adult character – save Williams – as an unfeeling monster whose mission is to suppress the vitality of youth.

Dead Poets Society: **

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