In 1980s Britain, a group of young men at Cutlers' Grammar School all have the brains, and the will to earn the chance of getting accepted in the finest universities in the nation, Oxford and Cambridge. Despite the fine teaching by excellent professionals like Mrs Lintott in history and the intellectually enthusiastic Hector in General Studies, the Headmaster is not satisfied. He signs on the young Irwin to polish the students' style to give them the best chance. In this mix of intellectualism and creative spirit that guides a rigorous preparation regime for that ultimate educational brass ring, the lives of the randy students and the ostensibly restrained faculty intertwine that would change their lives forever. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
At the beginning of the film, the title - "The History Boys" - is taken letter by letter from random parts of an essay on the dissolution of the monasteries, a common history topic, Which the History Boys themselves write later on in the film. See more »
Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag
Written by Simon Underwood, Oliver Moore, James Johnstone, Andrew Carpenter, Christopher Hamlyn,
Christopher Lee and Roger Freeman
(c) Mistral Music Ltd / Warner/Chappell Music Ltd
Performed by Pigbag
Licensed courtesy of Sony BMG Music Entertainment (UK) Limited See more »
A bit like making bucks fizz with Cristal and more stage than screen, but good nonetheless
A certain transcendence beyond ordinary language could, in one sense, said to be the goal of every artist, communicating, inspiring, or perhaps teaching us something within ourselves that goes beyond the immediate form. Music can arouse feelings and aspirations, stories might evoke similar events in our own experience and throw new light on them, and great paintings can reach out to the sublime within us, taking us beyond the mundane for a brief moment of time. There is a creative element in each of us that goes beyond reasoning; the flash of inner genius; the illumination of the soul. The question of how to awaken that in adolescents preparing for Oxford or Cambridge is one that admits of no straightforward answer, though the teachers portrayed in The History Boys approach it from a number of angles, provoking philosophical challenges to the audience about the nature of education. Add to that the theme of awakening sexuality and at least one teacher who confabulates both strands with his personal sexual desires, and you have an entertaining story, even before adding the side-splitting, intelligent humour.
The beauty - and also the shortfall - of The History Boys is that people who are steeped in theatre made it. With the modern genius of playwright Alan Bennett transferring stage to screen we can be grateful that his masterpieces will reach a wider audience. But this is Bennett-lite, and almost makes us long for the original, full-length work. There is a notable absence of cinematic flourish - use of lighting, camera-work, images and subtleties unique to the silver screen that could have lifted the spirit of The History Boys to something that is beyond the physical limitations of the original stage. There is nothing here that could not have been portrayed equally well there - which leads us to conclude that, apart from it being a more accessible medium, the film is nothing more than a shortened and only mildly adjusted copy of the play. All the actors have the same, excellent projection of voice and perfect intonation that carries well for a live performance but that lacks the sense of intimacy which the camera can bring. Facial expressions are slightly overemphasised, as befitting the stage, but lacking the subtlety usually required for good cinema. At times it sounds too much like a recitation or performance, resulting in an audience detachment that comes from not quite being able to believe in the reality of characters before us or the emotions they are going through. Director Nicholas Hytner (Center Stage, The Crucible, The Madness of King George) also has his roots firmly in theatre, yet his choice of subject matter has generally been so outstanding that he has reaped awards in spite of this clunky, stagey style (the one exception being The Object of My Affection - which was less well critically received). The History Boys is obvious BAFTA-bait but, like the Madness of King George, its pluses fortunately outshine its weaknesses, and the story, humour and intellectual substance are so engaging that you can be guaranteed lots of discussion afterwards with your fellow filmgoers.
In 1998, Bennett (who graduated from Exeter College Oxford in Medieval History) refused an honorary doctorate from Oxford in protest at its links with press baron Rupert Murdoch. If anybody has the background to tell an outrageously authentic and rebellious tale of a-list history students with homo-erotic leanings it must surely be Bennett. He skilfully navigates the ground between appealing to a predominantly gay audience and a mainstream one by sublimating much of the homosexual content beneath the time-honoured stiff upper lip of English public school tradition, and then including hilarious heterosexual content that makes seducing a woman into a war-game. Gilded epigrams, quotable quotes and the most stylish of double-entendres ('gobbets') flood our ears as the boys' literary skills are augmented with the most ingenious of schoolboy deceptions. An ad-libbed enactment of a brothel scene for a French class (where one of the lads removes his trousers for added realism) is transformed seamlessly to a battle front drama when the headmaster makes a surprise appearance. Literary references leap from Thomas Hardy and Keats to Brief Encounter and Carry On films, and this mind-enhancing (if questionable) juxtaposition is faultlessly analysed. The question of 'what is history' is pursued with some vigour, from the idea of 'subjunctive history' to Rudge's down to earth if academically challenged definition - just one effing thing after another. Different intellectual approaches are personified by teachers Hector (knowledge for its own sake, whether it seems useful or not), Irwin (flashes of insight and creativeness that stand out from the usual interpretations) and Mrs Lintott (who suggests radical reinterpretation from a feminist point of view, instead of history being the story of men's inadequate responses told from the point of view of other men).
If all this sounds like an overly cerebral experience, be assured that it races past so quickly that paying attention to the academic content is an optional extra. Lighter viewing can tune in unashamedly to the in-your-face humour, a great soundtrack (The Smiths, New Order, The Clash, The Cure) and additional musical interludes as the lads leap to an old piano and acquit themselves admirably with camp song routines.
Like the similarly highbrow Dead Poets Society and The Browning Version or the more basic Dangerous Minds, The History Boys relies for its emotional ballast on the familiar themes of seeing a successful adult in a promising student, and the frailty of the teaching process, especially when the teachers need to propel students to heights that they themselves have never reached. For all its failings, that it does so with the brilliance of one of our finest contemporary playwrights is reason enough to see it. With its classic portrayal of English institutions and education system it also, perhaps less justifiably, makes one kind of proud to be British.
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