When Robin Williams died in August this year there was a genuine public sense of sadness and disbelief that he had gone. The legacy of his film career displays the breadth of his genius as an actor, both in terms of his undoubted comic talent, but also in performances that could provoke such strong emotions in the viewer that they are film roles we never forget. Williams’ part in Dead Poets Society is one of those roles.
Set in a high achieving boys’ prep school at the start of the 1959 academic year, the students are pushed towards working in suitable professions by domineering parents. John Keating (Robin Williams) is a new English teacher and former pupil, whose unconventional methods to enable his students to dream of different life create adoration from those taking his class. He encourages them to tear up a text book, read a line of poetry before ferociously kicking a football and to ultimately think for themselves. When the students discover an old school year book, they find that Keating was a member of the Dead Poets Society, a group dedicated to ‘sucking the marrow out of life’, meeting secretly to read poetry. The young men in his class reform the Society and their rebellion begins.
Keating’s teaching style and his questioning of the curriculum attracts the criticism of the school administration, but the students are learning important lessons about striking out on their own. Keating’s first lesson based around the Walt Whitman poem ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ and his suggestion that the students refer to him as Captain, form a theme throughout the film until its climax. He teaches them the meaning of carpe diem, advises them to truly seize the day and ‘gather ye rosebuds why ye may’, because lives are short and destiny unpredictable. These sentiments are so poignant in the light of Williams’ death and add an extra sadness to the unfolding of events during the course of the movie.
Dead Poets Society was the first time I had seen Robin Williams in a straight acting role. Although John Keating is a character with real spirit, Williams performs it at times with such restraint that we can hardly believe this is the same man who bounced off the walls as a stand up comedian. We do get a little of this in the character’s impersonations of Hollywood actors acting in Shakespeare plays and wonder if he has been given free rein to deliver his John Wayne as Macbeth, but for the rest of the movie he shows us a character of such genuine warmth that we fully understand why he is beloved. We are completely drawn in to why his students take such inspiration from him.
Williams’ portrayal of a teacher that has such passion for his subject and aims to ignite the spark of individuality in his students is wholly believable. Every glance is totally in keeping with the character. The young actors such as Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard that surround Williams in the classroom scenes, seem to feed off him and build their roles from his generosity as a fellow performer. The sense that actors appearing with him have raised their game because of his presence is something that we feel throughout his movie career.
To say the film is emotional is pretty much an understatement. Sometimes during sad movies we hear someone sobbing uncontrollably in the dark of the cinema, wonder why the story has got to them so much and imagine they must be terribly embarrassed by such a public outpouring of grief. The person sobbing uncontrollably for that particular showing of Dead Poets Society back in 1989 was me. Heart wrenching, gulping for air, twisting the guts sobs.
It’s never quite the same once you’ve seen a film and you know what’s to come in the ending, and I’m not going to spoil things for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the sensation of what Williams’ performance provokes and how this story made me feel has stayed with me for years. Shortly after Williams’ death I saw twitter feeds for people joining together to watch Dead Poets Society collectively wherever they were in the world. Many of the viewers hadn’t seen it before and watching the feed I knew what they would be letting themselves in for. Heart wrenching, gulping for air, twisting the guts sobs. O Captain, My Captain indeed.