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For 100 years, the exclusive Welton school has prepared America’s best and brightest for their university careers. Now, in 1959, an unconventional new teacher has arrived at the school. English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) takes a decidedly non-traditional approach to teaching his subject, urging his young charges to think for themselves. This inspires a group including Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) and Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) to re-establish the Dead Poets Society, a secretive sect originally started by Keating to celebrate life and poetry. Neil however takes things a step further, deciding to become an actor in a local theatrical production. This brings him into direct conflict with his father (Kurtwood Smith), who has carefully laid out the plan for Neil’s life. His plan involves study and becoming a doctor – not acting.

Review by David Edwards:
After leaving Australia for Hollywood, Peter Weir made the highly regarded Witness (and the less successful Mosquito Coast) before turning his hand to this coming-of-age story with a twist. Dead Poets Society is one of Weir’s most visually striking films, thanks in no small measure to the fine work behind the lens of another Aussie, John Seale. Its success or failure as a film though depends to a large extent on whether you can believe the rather contrived storyline.

The film was criticised at the time of its release for its platitudinous script and at times overwrought sentimentality. Those criticisms are not unjustified. The story of an unconventional teacher and his effect on both the staid school and its students at times stretches belief; a feeling not entirely able to be explained away by its late 1950s setting. And although its ending isn’t quite as cringe-worthy as say Scent of a Woman, it certainly rings more of manipulation than it does of truth.

Of course, the DVD cannot change any of that, and as a film, this is likely to be a “love it or hate it” proposition. For those who do love it though (and there are plenty of people who do), the package is certainly one of the better ones currently on the market.

The first thing you’ll note about the DVD is the absolutely stunning digital transfer. John Seale’s amazing visual palette seems to come alive; with each autumn leaf burning, each snowflake shimmering. The magnificent school and its spacious grounds are vividly evoked; as are the fresh young faces of the students, full of hope and naivety.

The extras on the disc are equally impressive. The standout for film buffs will undoubtedly be the master class with John Seale. This is an AFTRS piece, which features a much younger John Seale discussing how the film was lit and shot. The techniques are explained in terms most people will understand, and certainly provide an excellent insight into the cinematographer’s craft. One tip though – don’t watch this before you watch the feature for the first time, or you’ll spend the whole film looking for Seale’s work.

The Scrapbook is a series of interviews with actors who appeared in the film (Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Melora Waters among them) talking about their experiences on the film. Without exception, they praise Weir’s work and abilities, while providing some nice anecdotes about making the film. Weir himself takes a turn in the Alan Splet Tribute; in which the director pays homage to the legendary sound designer and editor, who worked on both Dead Poets Society and Mosquito Coast. The disc includes a “raw take” of a scene that didn’t make it into the finished film, together with the obligatory theatrical trailer. Audio commentary is available, featuring Weir, Seale and writer Tom Schulman and it’s one of the better examples of how this feature really should work.

Dead Poets Society, for all its flaws, has endured and remains a film much-loved by many. The DVD provides an absolutely pristine copy of the film, together with excellent extras that really do add value. If you’re one of those who love this film, the DVD will undoubtedly prove a more than worthwhile investment.

Published November 21, 2002

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CAST: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles

DIRECTOR: Peter Weir

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen enhanced for 16 X 9; Dolby Digital: English 5.1; Spanish 5.1; multi-language subtitles, including English subtitles for the hearing impaired

SPECIAL FEATURES: Scrapbook, raw takes, Alan Spelt tribute, John Seale’s master class, trailer, audio commentary


DVD RELEASE: August 20, 2002

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