The year is 1959. John Keating (Robin Williams) is the new English professor at Welton Academy – a stuffy prep school tucked away in the hills of Vermont, New England – who uses unconventional methods to instil spirit into the lives of his students.
The cold, conservative faculty and his eager, gullible students, have never seen anything like him. He’s crazy, eccentric, and a rebel with a cause, whose teaching methods are so unorthodox, he even instructs the kids to tear up their own textbooks.
Amongst the seven boys who react most to Keating and his methods (the Dead Poets Society of the title) there is the leader (Robert Sean Leonard), the introvert (Ethan Hawke), the romantic (Josh Charles), the rebel (Gale Hansen), the outsider (Dylan Kussman), the underdog (Allelon Ruggiero) and the loser (Jamie Waterson).
All seven young actors acquit themselves honourably. Leonard does even better than that as the boy whose dream of a life in the theatre is crushed by a ramrod father.
Williams is no sentimental Mr Chips. He has a passion for teaching, encouraging the students to respect words and ideas, think for themselves, stand up and be counted in life, and “seize the day”.
Keating does impressions (his John Wayne as Macbeth is a lulu), introduces poetry into soccer games and persuades the buzzcut kids that Whitman, Byron and Keats can offer relevant advice on everything from picking a career to wooing women.
Ultimately, an innocent act of self-expression leads to tragedy for one boy and the teacher becomes the scapegoat.
So the film is really about the high cost of nonconformity.
But Peter Weir’s direction has a nice leisurely pace that allows the actors to develop characters instead of caricatures.
From the lyrical cinematography to the sensitive, dedicated performances by the boys and especially Robin Williams’s mesmerising three-dimensional centrepiece, Dead Poets Society is a warm, human film of immense feeling and insight.
Robert Sean Leonard