In “Dead Poets’ Society,” directed by Peter Weir, setting is one the fundamental aspects of the film as it conveys and develop the main theme: conformity versus personal freedom and nonconformity. The importance of setting is revealed in the film through the use of various visual techniques. It is through the choice and presentation of the setting - single-sex boys’ school- that audiences are able to and further understand of the main ideas presented in the film.
The general setting of “Dead Poets’ Society” is Welton, a single-sex boys’ school in rural Vermont, New England in the late 1950s. This rural setting is important as it escapes the influence of the fast-evolving metropolitan civilisation, which reflects one of the “four pillars” of the school- “tradition”. The fact that the film is set in New England reinforces this idea, as New England is in many ways similar to England- a country with old-fashioned customs and culture.
This is reflected in the film where traditional Scottish music can be heard during the processional of the school assembly. Together, this shows how the students and teachers of the school are conformed to value the traditions of Welton and that this tradition is insusceptible to change. While the film was released in 1989, “Dead Poets’ Society” is set during they year of 1959, which is especially significant being so close to the 60s- an era where free-love and unconventional ideas were introduced.
This not only shows how students have conformed to the expectations of Welton until this time, but also foreshadows the events that are to come in the film. Apart from the general setting, the film also has two predominant local settings: the school grounds of Welton and the nearby countryside. When the audience first seethe school grounds during the opening section of the film, we are confronted with the sturdy stone structures of its buildings, high interior walls and ceilings, shown in high angle camera shots, which emphasises the power and the authority of the school.
The dullness in colour of the buildings and the rigid angular shapes of the school’s architecture, gives us a sense of formality, and discipline. Later, we also see the students of the school dressed in the same, dull, grey-coloured school uniform moving around in classrooms, corridors and dormitories that seem claustrophobic. This effect emphasises how the school acts as a sort of restriction to the boys in order to maintain order and discipline. Not only that, it also shows the loss of individuality as we see the boys blending into the surrounding environment.
Weir further develops this image of Welton by using constant cross-cutting of camera shots from the interior shots of the school to the surrounding autumnal landscapes. Intone particular scene, the camera captures the flight of a flock of geese taking off into the vastness, where there are no constraints. Compared to the static shots inside the school buildings, the camera shots in this scene are more dynamic, colours are more vibrant and the environment more spacious.
These contrasting elements are used to symbolise the freedom of the geese in the natural world compared to the boys who are within the restrictions of the world of mankind, which accentuates the dangers of conformity, and the importance of personal freedom. Another significant setting that exhibits the theme of nonconformity is the Indian cave. In the film, this natural setting is presented as being very simple, primitive andfree from complexities of life at Welton. It is a place with no restrictions imposed on the boys and therefore they are able to get in touch with their inner selves.
Even though the cave seems cramped, which is shown through Weir’s use of low lighting and close-up camera shots, it is an environment with the capacity to accommodate the boys’ poetic discovery and assertion of their personal freedom. This allows them to express themselves in ways that would never be accepted within the rigid human construct of the school, such as reading poems they wrote about women and chanting a verse in an almost barbaric manner. The isolation of the cave, and the smoky, atmospheric eeriness developed in the film suggest how the actions of the boys are somehow forbidden.
It also symbolises the start of the fight for individuality, which will defy and challenge the values of Welton, because as Neil reads from apoem in the film, “…it is not too late to seek a newer world. The settings presented in “Dead Poets’ Society” are inseparable from the theme of conformity versus nonconformity and personal freedom, due to the many symbols present in these settings and it is through the clever use of camera work, that these ideas are developed, which enable audiences to better understand the themes in the film.