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‘Dead Poets Society’ Has Some Distinctly Australian Relevance

World‘Dead Poets Society’ Has Some Distinctly Australian Relevance

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief since 2017.

With my 13-year-old daughter home for a break from her one-year adventure at a boarding school in the Australian bush, we put on an old movie the other night that she had asked to see: “Dead Poets Society.”

As many of you probably know, it’s a coming-of-age story set at an American private school, starring an inspiring teacher played by Robin Williams. I loved it when it came out in 1989 (I was a young teen then myself), but when the director’s name — Peter Weir — appeared onscreen in my Sydney living room, I did a double take.

I’d never realized that the movie, a beloved classic for many Americans, was directed by an Australian. Somehow, the same bloke responsible for Australian classics like “Gallipoli” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was also the director of very American favorites like “Dead Poets Society” and “The Truman Show.”

Like me, or so I would like to believe, Mr. Weir seemed to be conversant in the cultures of these two English-speaking settler nations, able, perhaps, to see more clearly the deep grooves and dark shadows of each because he’d had the chance to look from a distant perspective.

I watched the movie with fresh eyes. I was already looking for what secrets and lessons it might hold for my daughter. I wondered if I would feel more sympathetic to the adults rather than the moderately rebellious teens this time (nope), but I also decided to look for what might make the movie more Australian than I had noticed in earlier viewings.

What, if anything, would Australian audiences have found relevant and relatable?

At first, the movie struck me as extremely American. I recognized the emphasis on Henry David Thoreau, an American writer who lived not far from where I had grown up in Massachusetts. His quotes from “Walden” about the need to live deliberately and “suck out all the marrow of life” were already in our family mix: I’d sent a bit of Thoreau to my daughter in letters, an analog exchange that I recently wrote about in an essay for The Times.

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