This review was written for the AFI Film Fest screening of "The History Boys".
"The History Boys" reunites the team behind the award-winning play -- playwright Alan Bennett, director Nicholas Hytner
and the key cast members of the London and Broadway stage version -- for a film where precious little has been done to accommodate the change in medium.
Performances border on the theatrical. Perhaps they should rename this "The Histrionic Boys" as Hytner fails to get his over-rehearsed actors, especially the younger ones, to take their stage performances down a notch or two for the camera. But if you liked the play and the compelling ideas Bennett kicks around, the movie makes for an intellectually invigorating couple of hours.
This is a very English play. The truths here may be universal, but the specifics belong to no other country. So audiences for the film version may be limited to Anglophiles and admirers of Bennett's witty way with words. Throw in a classroom scene entirely in French -- first-year French will make the hilarious scene completely accessible, though -- and you do get a film that screams "art house."
The story takes place at an all-boys grammar school -- the British equivalent of an American public high school -- in Yorkshire in 1983. Here a class of eight smart history students has achieved such success on the A Levels that the headmaster (Clive Merrison
, far too over the top) pushes them to apply to those twin holy grails of British higher education: Oxford and Cambridge.
Their no-nonsense history professor, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), and flamboyant, Falstaffian English instructor, Hector (Richard Griffiths), have led the clever lads to this level of achievement. However, the headmaster hires a young history grad named Irwin Stephen Campbell Moore
, who somewhat resembles Stephen Colbert
) to coach them in ways to improve test scores and give them polish and edge for their interviews.
Over the next few weeks, as the relationships among students and teachers come into sharper focus, the movie examines the process and purposes of education itself. Is it to pass exams, or is it to encourage a desire to learn?
Bennett's achievement is not so much to take sides as to let the three teachers and their charges to have their say. The motorcycle-riding Hector, whom Bennett describes in his stage directions as "a man of studied eccentricity," glories in the richness of language and has his lads memorize great swaths of poetry. On their own, the boys memorize old movies -- tearjerkers are the preferred choice -- and old songs.
Mrs. Lintott believes in plain-vanilla historical study and inquiry without resorting to flash or gimmicks. Ah, but Coach Irwin insists that, for exams at least, tricks may help. He preaches a "journalistic" technique to answering academic questions, going for an attention-grabbing, unconventional approach, argued with brisk generalities and sufficient facts and quotations to engage the interest of an examiner dazed from reading so many dry scholarly answers.
This leads to the movie's most fascinating scene, in which the boys, in a class jointly shared by Hector and Irwin, debate how one approaches the Holocaust academically, indeed whether one can even teach the Holocaust. If the Holocaust can be explained as an historical event like all others, then can it not be explained away?
While Bennett's satire no doubt aims at Thatcherite values, American viewers can certainly substitute the Reaganite push for a results-oriented society and heavy reliance on spin and glibness.
The young actors are all a good number of years older than their characters, but somehow you scarcely notice. Dakin (Dominic Cooper
) is the class star, dark and handsome, on whom everyone has a crush: teachers, students and the headmaster's female secretary. (Bennett succumbs to the British boys school cliche where homosexuality is rampant and even a heterosexual stud has an inner "nancy" eager to come out.)
Posner (Samuel Barnett
) is small, Jewish and homosexual -- "I'm fucked," he moans. Rudge (Russell Tovey
) is the athlete, light on academics, yet he most accurately sums the randomness of historical events as "one fuckin' thing after another."
Portly Timms (James Corden) earns a few laughs, but the others -- Scripps (Jamie Parker), Lockwood (Andrew Knott
) and the two minority representatives, Crowther (Samuel Anderson
) and Akthar (Sacha Dhawan
) -- are thinly sketched.
Griffiths and Moore deliver absolutely spot-on, wonderfully engaging performances that use their girth and youth, respectively, to full effect. But, surprisingly, the great performance belongs to de la Tour. She has taken a stage performance down a notch, giving each appearance -- she has fewer than the males -- its full impact.
The production has not been opened up much for a film. Nor has Bennett changed much from the play. A gym teacher, one who overly proselytizes his Christian religion, has been added and the ending tweaked so the headmaster gets a much-deserved comeuppance. Andrew Dunn's camera darts smoothly in and around the flat-footed actors, bringing at least some sense of movement to the movie.
A few break-away montages with period music and shots of the boys pulling books from library shelves and the like also help to remind you that this is, after all, a movie.