The only upside to the death of Robin Williams is the recent glut of rep screenings of his movies. In San Francisco rep houses in particular have made a concerted effort to pay tribute to the hometown hero, coordinating non-conflicting screenings, allowing local residents to revisit their favorite Williams performances. In our case, we got to experience Dead Poets Society for the first time.
It offers Williams' second Oscar-nominated performance, and it's a lovely piece of work. As John Keating, an English teacher who shakes up a strict 1950s prep school with his unorthodox but inspirational teaching methods, Williams offers one of his more restrained performances; his lapses into comic delivery are completely in line with the gifts of Keating, a man whose love of words and knack for communication are inherently inspiring. Though it doesn't play directly to his strengths, Williams makes it impossible to see anyone else in the role.
But one of the movie's most refreshing surprises is that it's less about Keating than about his effect on the lives of the students in his care (who become, through his inspiration, the movie's title characters). As the title suggests it's very much an ensemble piece, taking its time to establish each of its young characters and their distinct personalities. These characters grow both together within the Society and inside their own distinct subplots: Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) pursues acting against his stern father's wishes; Knox (Josh Charles) finds himself helplessly in the throes of first love; Todd (Ethan Hawke) builds walls around him that, when shattered by Keating's encouragement, give way to a floodtide of long suppressed emotion. Even the more secondary characters have their moments: when Pitts (James Waterson) is chided by Keating for half-assing an assignment, we see it register when Keating specifically calls out not his work's laziness, but its ordinariness.
Peter Weir's knack for capturing the textural details of small-town life and its surrounding landscapes. The world around Welton Academy hums with a rich inner life, from shots of flocks of birds jumping into flight to the Society's first clandestine walk through a fog-shrouded forest. (One wonders how Weir would have fared directing a Harry Potter chapter.) Weir's attention to detail is felt right down to the amateur student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; unlike many plays-within-movies, this looks like an actual, living, breathing production, which helps us buy Neil's sudden love of acting, and the confidence (if also the roughness) of his first performance.
Williams would fall into a trap in his later film career, stuck more often than not in flimsy stories built solely as a foil
for his antics (looking at you, Patch Adams). Dead Poets Society remains one of the essential Robin Williams movies by avoiding this, by being a uniformly well told story with Williams as its catalyst, not necessarily its center. Its earnestness and solid storytelling outweigh moments that would have been mawkish in lesser hands, and it holds its classic status honestly. Even honorably.