Confusing message and characterisation mar its potential.
As a person with fair appreciation for both poetry and the acting talents of Robin Williams, I really thought I'd enjoy this film a lot more than I did.
There were promising bits - the scenery was nice, and Neil's subplot was interesting. But there were flaws that, I found, overshadowed these - first and foremost, in my opinion, the frustrating combination of confusion and unlikability that defined Williams' character, which even the charm of his acting couldn't save.
I mean, what the hell are we supposed to learn from Keating? To me, it seemed something like "if you're a high school teacher who disagrees with the academic approach of the prescribed textbook, debating it with the students or encouraging them to approach it critically is for wusses - just have them rip it up. Anyone who seems to disagree with this juvenile approach will later be characterised as a cowardly snitch". Or perhaps "it's a-okay to waste class time having your students run around the courtyard to teach them cheesy life lessons". In a time when we're lucky if we can get high school students to so much as attend class, let alone show some semblance of work ethic, I found this more than a little jarring.
And then there was the faulty characterisation. We're supposed to hate Mr Nolan, but as far as I could tell, his worst crimes were being somewhat dour, disapproving of Keating's borderline anarchic teaching methods, and beating Charlie Dalton for being an insolent little twat (at least the film seemed to condemn his
behaviour). Frankly, I felt sorry for the guy more than anything - running a high school's hard enough without having to deal with a bunch of students who sneak out at night to do stuff they should be doing in class.
And as to the poetry - there wasn't much, was there? Yeah, for a film with 'Poets' in the title, this film had very little to do with poetry at all. There's a few quotes thrown in, and one vaguely interesting class exercise, but other than that, that lovely little aspect of culture is shoved into the background in favour of us getting to watch things like Knox's cheesy high-school-drama subplot.
All in all, as much of a treat as Robin Williams always is, if you're looking for a film set in a quaint high school with a lot of poetry, you'd probably be better off going with something like The History Boys