A film that rams carpe diem down your throat, Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society had a strong popular following that vaulted it to an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 1989. Its beautifully shot prep school milieu and generally strong acting, including a virtuoso performance by Robin Williams, give it the feel of a precursor to the Miramax empire, but the film's emotionally manipulative core is a serious detractor. After the students spend plenty of time pretentiously running about in caves and wallowing in pseudo-intellectualism, one of them misapplies Williams' message in a manner that can only be described as a wild overreaction to his plight, blatantly designed to jerk tears. In this way, the film moves perniciously from a shallow, if pleasing, inspirational piece to a maudlin tragedy. Because the film is so skillfully highbrow at presenting its coming-of-age story, which has the effect of rewarding the audience's intelligence, many viewers loved Weir's film, making it something of a minor classic to certain devoted fans. No doubt it is rich with atmosphere, thanks in large part to John Seale's masterful cinematography, and buoyed by energetic young talent. But a closer reading reveals deep flaws, which ultimately render it a simplistic and exaggerated message-movie rather than a work of emotional or intellectual complexity.
by Derek Armstrong review