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Blu-ray Review: Dead Poets Society

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Directed by Peter Weir, 1989’s Dead Poets Society won one Oscar upon its theatrical release and earned another three nominations.  It won for Tom Schulman’s screenplay, losing for best actor (Robin Williams), best director, and best picture.  Watching it more than 20 years later in its new Blu-ray incarnation, the performances remain remarkable as does much of the story, although to some extent, one has to question the depth of the characters put on screen.

Dead Poets Society is the tale of a group of young men at a prestigious private school (Welton Academy) in the late 1950s who are influenced by the arrival of a new, rogue, teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams).  The cast of young men is impressive with Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Josh Charles making up the three of their number.  Unfortunately, perhaps the film makes the group (which includes at least four others) too large as it barely gets any time to spend on most of the teens. 

Leonard is perhaps the true lead actor in the film, and portrays Neil Perry.  Neil wants nothing more than to experience that which life has to offer, to broaden his horizon, but is constantly put in place by his father, Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith).  Neil’s plight is nothing new, but he is the most fully drawn of all the characters in the film, including Williams’ Keating.

Hawke is Todd Anderson, a horribly shy teen who has difficulty overcoming said shyness.  There are a moment or two in the film where it seems as though there is a large, traumatic tale revolving around the reasons for Todd’s introverted attitude (the film certainly spends enough time telling us he has one).  Unfortunately, Dead Poets never actually bothers to tell that tale on screen – instead, this character whom the film spends so much time on at the beginning, and whom we are repeatedly told is one of the more important characters, remains a distinct mystery still when the final credits role.

Then there is Charles, who plays Knox Overstreet.  Knox finds love at first sight and has to come up with some brilliant plan to make the girl, who is currently seeing someone else, feel the same way.

In short (relatively short, anyway), this group of teens are typical kids with typical problems.  That is, perhaps, why the film doesn’t spent a ton of time bothering to make them all full characters – we can all quite easily place our own personal characteristics/issues onto the broad brushstrokes we are given.

What the film does give us, instead, are quick glimpses into how these students are affected by Keating’s class.  The teacher, who is an alumnus of Welton, has a style is wholly different from what the stodgy school is used to.  Upon delving into his history at the school, the teens learn that Keating was a member of the “Dead Poets Society,” a secret group which read (and wrote) poetry at a cave in the woods.

Where the film excels in its ability to make this secret organization, and their reading poetry to one another, something wonderful.  And, the truth of it is that despite its not fully realizing the characters it creates, Dead Poets‘ still manages to produce an emotional response from the audience.  This is, quite probably, for the same reason that that the film can get away without creating deep characters – the situations in which we find the teens are ones which we can all understand, and the lucky amongst us have had a teacher who has touched our lives in a way half as deep as the way Keating touches the new Dead Poets group.

The film is an exploration of what it means to grow up, what it means to be educated, and in the broadest sense, what it means to become an adult.  It may be a period piece about boys at an upper-crust prep school, but the story is no less universal for that.

The new Blu-ray release of the film is just as good on the technical side of things as it in wrenching emotion out of the audience.  The color, clarity, and amount of detail present in the release are excellent.  There is nary a scratch nor a blemish to be found.  One will notice some more soft-focus shots in the film, but that appears to be more directorial intent than an issue with the transfer.  The film, too, is grainy, but again that is more a factor of intent than transfer issues.  Audio-wise, the film sports a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  This is a dialogue heavy film, so much of the heavy-lifting is done by the front speakers, but the surrounds do help situate the viewer.  And, just as with the video, one won’t notice any real flaws in the audio presentation – all that dialogue comes through loud and clear (as though one were presenting a lecture… or reading poetry in an acoustically sound cave).

The extras included with the Blu-ray release are interesting, although apparently not new.  There is an audio commentary with Weir, Schulman, and John Seale (cinematographer) which (as one would expect) details what went into making the film.  The featurettes themselves are all presented in standard definition, included a deleted scene.    There are also pieces on cinematography and sound design.  The one main featurette which focuses extensively on what took place behind the scenes, interviews cast members (but not Williams) and clearly several years old.  It would have been great to have had a new piece talking to the same cast members again now

Dead Poets Society is one of those movies which does everything it can to wrench a reaction from the viewer, but it does so in a way that feels like a natural outgrowth of the story rather than as cheap manipulation.  It is filled with great performances and tells a story to which we can all relate.  It is a film that is as good today as it was when it was originally released.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.