|Dead Poets Society (Special Edition)|
|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 10 January 2006|
The film begins in 1959 New England at a prep school called Welton Academy. There we meet a variety of young men such as the shy and quiet Todd (Hawke), who has just enrolled and must live up to the legacy of his former valedictorian older brother, the kind and thoughtful Neal (Robert Sean Leonard) and others. They begin classes with the usual amount of trepidation until they reach their English class, taught by Welton alum and newly arrived John Keating (Robin Williams). Keating makes an immediate impression on the boys, encouraging them to think for themselves and, while still pursuing the jobs and goals their parents have set for them, to live life to its fullest and seize the day. After looking through the old school annual, the boys discover that Mr. Keating was head of an organization called the Dead Poets Society, which he tells them was an avenue for exploring language, literature and life. While Keating indicates the current administration would frown upon the Dead Poets, the boys are determined to restart the society.
This newfound passion affects each of the boys in different ways, but it often has to do with rebelling against the path that their parents have chosen for them. Neal’s father, Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), is the most visible example of this, always ready to steer Neal towards medical school with more than a firm hand and a stern voice. Neal finds that his passion is acting, but he must hide this from his father. Knox (Josh Charles) seizes the day by going after a girl he likes, while the others have their own breakthroughs, though Todd’s is the most subtle yet the most dramatic. Keating also has his own run-ins with the administration, since part of what he teaches against, conformity, is the same thing a preparatory school like Welton is founded upon. Eventually, the boys’ vibrancy gets them into trouble and they are faced with a tragedy; afterward, each one must decide just how much Keating’s influence has affected them. What results is a moving, thoughtful and poignant finale that ranks as one of the finest of all time.
This is a wonderful film in every aspect, from the script to the acting, directing, cinematography, music and more. It treats in a serious way, without being pedantic, the idea of school, work, life and how those things all affect each other and how we balance each. Its examination of the idealism of youth, as well as the idealism of life, is so effective because it uses young men, and a few women, to illustrate those very questions that we all struggle with in our lives. Director Weir is a master of detail, so that we truly feel as though we are keen observers of this school and the people who live within it. Other films have tried to repeat the success of “Dead Poets Society,” such as “School Ties” and the recent Kevin Kline dud “The Emperor’s Club,” but none can match the ability of “Dead Poets Society” to seem completely sincere, serious and, most of all, impactful. Robin Williams is top-billed here and, while he does a fine job as the almost messianic Keating, it is the performances of the young actors that make the film work. Hawke, Leonard, Charles and the others all present us with stellar performances that provide the truth of the situation. This is thanks in no small part to the fine script by Tom Schulman and the ability of Weir to draw an excellent performance out of any actor. After all, it is Weir who directed Harrison Ford in what are considered his two best performances, in “Witness” and “The Mosquito Coast.” When extolling the virtues of the film, I would be remiss not to mention the beautiful and apt cinematography of multiple Oscar winner John Seale.
Touchstone Home Entertainment seems bent on re-releasing “special editions” of late ‘80s Robin Williams movies, as they’ve also released a new DVD of “Good Morning, Vietnam.” While they have done this, there is little special about these new DVDs. The difference in quality with the original version of the “Dead Poets Society” DVD is marginal at best and is really limited to the addition of a 5.1 channel sound mix; because this is a dialogue-heavy film, there is little difference between the two. I have the old DVD and did a comparison, and the only things that sound better are some of the background ambient sound effects. The quality of the image is slightly better, but it looks mainly as though the negative had been cleaned more effectively than on the original DVD transfer.
The bonus features are also spare, but with a few gems. “Raw Takes” gives us a sequence of related deleted scenes, and we see more segments of deleted scenes in the featurette “Dead Poets: A Look Back.” This featurette contains fairly recent interviews with director Weir, actors, Hawke, Leonard, Smith and others. It is a testament to the film that not only do the principals have good things to say about it, but that they remember so vividly the impact it had on them 17 years ago. Two small bits about the sound and cinematography are interesting, but seem to have been included more as filler than anything else. The real gem of the DVD is the feature-length commentary by Weir, Schulman and Seale. They do not talk over each other and indeed sound as though they were recorded separately. Weir and Seale are both masters at their trades and it is invigorating to hear what they have to say about the making of this film, as well as film in general. Schulman’s input helps to round out the commentary, as only he can give certain insights as to why the story developed the way it did.
The retrospective and commentaries are what truly set this DVD apart from its previous rendition. Technophiles will not find this special edition all that special, but film lovers and fans of the film itself will no doubt be interested by and derive pleasure from the input that the filmmakers give to this already fantastic film.