First off, let's set the record straight "Dead Poets Society" is not a zany Robin Williams comedy. In fact, it's not a comedy at all.
Oh, there are a few funny moments, and Williams manages to get in a bit of shtick here and there, but not in a dominant sense. And what's there seems to fit the character played by Williams, one John Keating, an unorthodox English teacher in a conservative prep school in 1959.
Keating's specialty is poetry (his name, in fact, is quite close to a classical poet) and as he teaches his young students to appreciate the art, he also teaches them to stretch for individuality. He's interested in the emotion of poetry and the freedom of expression it represents, and he tries to instill some of that freedom in the boys who attend his class.
Of course, Keating is headed for trouble. This is a school that believes in strict tradition and corporal punishment. And as the film focuses on the boys in the class seven of the lads in particular it becomes apparent that Keating's influence is more prominent in the film than his actual presence. Much of the character is felt rather than seen. That fact may dismay some Williams fans initially, but it shouldn't he is the glue that holds the film together.
The boys who are the primary central focus of the film include Neil (Robert Sean Leonard), who hasn't the strength to stand up to his rigid, somewhat psychologically abusive father (Kurtwood Smith); Todd (Ethan Hawke), who is attending school in the shadow of his accomplished brother, and whose parents are neglectful (take note of the birthday gift scene); Charlie (Gale Hansen), who takes his desire for independence to an arrogant extreme; Knox (Josh Charles), who falls in love with a cheerleader, making for a comic-tragic romance; and some other boys who are well-drawn, but who have less to do.
When the lads discover that Keating, a graduate of the school himself, once was involved in a group called the "Dead Poets Society," which met in a nearby cave and read poetry aloud, they decide to re-form the group. But, needless to say, it eventually meets with administration disapproval.
Director Peter Weir ("Witness," "The Year of Living Dangerously") and screenwriter Thom Schulman do a marvelous job of delineating the various characters so that we know each one, and though the film is a bit long (two hours, 10 minutes), given the nature of the material, and there are a few recognizable stereotypes and predictable moments from too many coming-of-age films, "Dead Poets Society" nevertheless is ultimately moving and has an ending that will leave the audience thinking as it leaves the theater.
All the performances are excellent, particularly the complex shadings of Leonard, but Williams is especially memorable. He is gentle, sincere, troubled and humorous. With each new venture Williams shows he is a remarkable talent and, though a few years ago we might have suspected otherwise, he has found a surprising number of films that have worked for him, despite his penchant for off-the-wall weirdness.
Mention should also be made of John Seale's gorgeous cinematography and the nice, subtle score by Maurice Jarre. In fact, it's just nice to have a period film that doesn't rely on rock music from the time being depicted.
"Dead Poets Society" is rated PG for (non-graphic) violence, a couple of profanities and a nude Playboy magazine photo in one scene.