A charismatic English teacher at a repressive prep school in the Fifties inspires his pupils to reconvene the long-defunct Dead Poets Society, a secret literary round-table "dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life" and to worshipping at the altar of Whitman, Byron, Keats -- the more romantic (blustery, sugary), the better: you don't catch them reciting Herbert or Pope. (It's a sort of salubrious counterpart of the fascistic boys' club in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea: here the only fascists are adults.) The teacher's classroom manner, while upholding noble causes like language and literature and freedom and individuality, tends to be rather showy and superficial -- impressions of Brando and John Wayne, jumping on top of the desk, adjourning to the soccer field -- and he never becomes more than a two-dimensional character. What's more, the performance of Robin Williams often suggests a Stanislavsky classroom exercise: Be a Poem (a somewhat more advanced exercise than Be a Tree). And the result could set poetry (or the perception of it) back a century or more. But that's a common place to start (and stop) with poetry, and Williams is performing not just a role, but a genuine public service in promoting the stuff. Good for him. Not so good, perhaps, for poetry. With Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Kurtwood Smith, and Norman Lloyd; directed by Peter Weir. (1989) — Duncan Shepherd
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