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British playwright/screenwriter Alan Bennett, whose scintillating wit
first surfaced in his contributions to the 1960 satiric stage revue,
"Beyond the Fringe," wrote "The History Boys," a play set in the early
1980s about English secondary school students and their teachers,
academic competition and the purpose of education, and the chaotic
developments of adolescent sexuality and coming of age.
Specifically, eight boys qualify for the Oxbridge entrance exams, an unprecedented number for this particular school. Proud of this but, more importantly, out to capitalize on the enhanced prospects for the school's future that could follow if all eight are accepted into Oxford or Cambridge, the Headmaster hires a special tutor to prepare the boys for the exams. It is in the midst of this cram course that the drama unfolds.
Produced by Britain's National Theatre, and led by NT Director Nicholas Hytner, "History Boys" became a smash stage hit in London (in 2004) and New York (in 2006). In between the launching of these two productions, Hytner, with his theater cast intact and working from a screen adaptation by Bennett, directed this filmic version of the play.
Most such segues from stage to screen don't work out well because of the vast differences between these two mediums in their requirements for effective dramatic expression. What may be spellbinding stagecraft can become deadly stasis in the movie house, to everyone's dismay. I'm absolutely delighted to report that the film, "History Boys," is a glorious exception to this general tendency.
One major reason is the stupendous cast, led by Richard Griffiths as the porcine, motorcycle riding, gay English teacher, Hector. Other teachers are played quite brilliantly by Frances de la Tour (an acerbic history teacher, Mrs. Lintott, lone advocate for women's achievements in this testosterone tinged cloister), Clive Merrison (the cynical, dyspeptic Headmaster, a classic administrator, utterly out of his element among scholars), and Stephen Campbell Moore (Irwin, a hired gun brought in to coach the boys for the Oxbridge exams, whose appeal to them is not only to lie to get ahead, but, more positively, also to recognize one's uniqueness, one's special qualities, and play them up). Mr. Griffiths and Ms. De la Tour have reaped numerous theater awards for their roles. The student contingent is led by Dominic Cooper (Dakin, the pretty boy), Samuel Barnett (Posner, the fretful one) and Russell Tovey (Rudge, the jock).
I think the film works primarily because of the snappy interactions and byplay among the ensemble of the eight students whose odyssey is the principal subject of the story. The boys are dissimilar types but all are energized as only high spirited adolescents can be. And it is this energy - the constant quipping, antics, and small dramas of daily life among them and in their encounters with their teachers which so richly infuses the movie with the active pace and rhythms of movement that film demands.
Bennett also helps the film's proceedings immensely by avoiding the drawn out speechifying that can succeed on stage but kill off a movie in nothing flat. His screenplay sparkles with laser-like little zingers. Examples. Dakin is described by a teacher as "cunt struck." Rudge, who appears more dull witted than is in fact the case, when pinned down to define history, gives the notorious reply that has been used in adverts for the productions: "History is just one f***ing thing after another." Or this one, uttered by a teacher during a class field trip to inspect the war memorial at Coventry: "While we may speak of 'Remembrance Day,' the real purpose of war memorials, like Coventry and the Cenotaph, is to aid forgetting (of the realities of war), not remembering." (I immediately thought of Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial on the D. C. Mall, which so presciently violates this formula.) There is also plenty of suspense here to keep film viewers attentive. Naturally there's the question of whether the boys will succeed on the exams, what the future holds for each. There's also philosophical tension, embodied in the clash of pedagogic values and motives between Hector (the quintessential scholar, the advocate of mastering knowledge for knowledge's sake) and Irwin (the pragmatic, win-at-any-cost, success coach, for whom victory most assuredly trumps truth seeking).
And there is sexual tension aplenty among this group as well. Bennett deftly explores a variety of sexual expressions, primarily homophilic, among the teachers and students. There is Hector's frank attraction to the boys, never mind the presence on the scene of his "unexpected" wife. And Irwin's more latent homophilia, which is not the only important matter hiding in his personal closet. Among the students there is Posner's dawning, hesitant realization of his queer impulses, and Dakin's more confident and polymorphous sexual appetites. "History Boys" is a triumphant reflection on the adolescent quest for truth and authenticity, about the world and about oneself. My grades: 9/10 (A) (Seen on 12/22/06)
So many moments in this film struck a chord with me. As a grammar school student applying for Oxbridge, I have to disagree with the previous reviewer. The worries and pressures, as well as the arrogance, humour (and sheer smart-aleckness) that surround the boys' dialogue perfectly capture the hilarity and torture of adolescence. The dialogue is a little stage-y, but that doesn't seriously tarnish its impact. I think this film expresses the uncertainty and risk involved in life in a way that is both poignant and witty; often both at the same time. Ideas about what education should really be could not be more beautifully expressed than in this picture of young boys with their whole lives stretched out in front of them, and old teachers still unsure of what it's all about. Subtle and brilliant.
I had the good fortune to see a preview of this film at Picturehouse
Greenwich - the best cinema in London. I had seen the play in London so
was expecting to be disappointed at seeing the film of the History Boys
on the screen. However,I am pleased to report it is a fantastic film.
Great characters, far too many good performances to pick any one person
as best actor. The boys and staff of the school were fantastic and
totally believable. Not quite how life was when I was at school, but I
imagine many grammar schools in the 1980's were the same.
I laughed out loud and cried and left the cinema with a smile on my face.
A must see
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,
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's Sheffield, early 1980s, and eight talented students have achieved
top grades at A-level and have Oxbridge in their sights. The problem?
"They're clever but they're crass." So along comes Stephen Campbell
Moore, a radical History teacher to change their manners, style, and
even teach them to change History... Sadly, the boys' new found
adoration for History and the musings of Nietzsche mean that their
interest in the lessons of homosexual teacher Hector (Richard
Griffiths, excellent) is displaced, and this film, with its many themes
lined up, examines the school, its students and learning History.
The History Boys is a film I connect and love for many reasons. The performances are stellar, and Stephen Campbell Moore and Samuel Barnett are standouts in the film, for their portrayals of the creative, innovative teacher and the sweet, sensitive gay teenager respectively. Samuel Barnett especially; he basically owned this movie, and every scene that he was in, I adored. He gives his gawky character such a tenderness of spirit and kind soul that it's impossible not to love him.
But every member of the cast is a treat to watch; Dominic Cooper embracing the lead with vivacity, charm, and that raffish charm of an 80s teenager. Richard Griffiths is also excellent, and lends some warmth to his potentially disturbing portrayal of a man with an unnatural penchant for groping his students in return for a student-led lesson such as "How to use the present subjunctive in a French brothel". The cast bind the wonderful Alan Bennett script together beautifully, and the chemistry and rapport between all the characters is unmatched, natural, and a total delight to watch. This by-the-book adaptation of Bennett's play doesn't add anything to the play, but that's simply a good thing, because the genius and vibrancy of the play is fabulous already.
Though depicting a High school in the 80s, I could still connect with this movie with my 21st century ideals. The teacher/student frictions and development of their relationship and respect is well-drawn and intelligent. The wit in which the process of getting into Oxbridge is shown, is reflective of nowadays, and there are one-liners here that are bound to raise a smile ("History? It's just one effing thing after another, isn't it?). Lastly, a cool 80s soundtrack guides our protagonists through the story with ease and warmth.
A fantastically enjoyable, uplifting experience, The History Boys can be enjoyed by everyone, from a Cambridge-educated boffin to someone who just wants a laugh. You'll end up being drawn in by each character, hoping for their successes, and being moved by the relationships depicted in the movie. The best film of the year so far; it even makes you remember the good things about History...
The History Boys is a very very challenging film for any audience. One
of these reasons is that it is driven by extremely eloquent
conversations between younger and elder intellectuals, each
conversation delving aggressively deep into the corners of conventional
logic and subtexts and fleshing them out in what different characters
arguably believe are the most truthful ways. Many characters are quite
confident and extremely extroverted and the ones who are not so
confident are defensively so. Alan Bennett's remarkably clear analysis
of the human condition is intimidating.
The other reason is because the story is one beyond social judgment. Perhaps this is purposeful because being written, produced, directed, and acted by English people, class-consciousness is surely existent among them. But that's what I love so much about this film. The audience, in order to understand and enjoy it, must release themselves from the scrutiny of general culture over many, mostly sexual, aspects of life. The film is not about homosexuality, but homosexual goings-on exist prevalently in the story. It's also treated very nonchalantly, and many straight boys are free of any personal sexual burdens that would inhibit them from partaking. The very talked-about homosexual element of the film exists as the most direct example and also the core of the basis of the story, which is the pressure of society's judgmental and devastatingly interfering nature with many things that, if one were truly understanding, would not judge or interfere with. This extends to greater and more complex idealism in the script, such as the philosophy and meaning of education, the satisfactory or unsatisfactory pursuit and outcome of success, the importance of art and poetry, and the point of studying history.
I believe that The History Boys is an extremely important movie, and the fact that it lasted for a single week at a small theater here in Cincinnati is despicable and glaringly, stupidly contradictory to its message.
Anyone who can watch the rolling credits at the end of THE HISTORY BOYS
without tearful eyes simply hasn't been paying attention to this
intelligent, richly comic, philosophical and tender tale of eight boys
ostensibly preparing for exams but also preparing for life. The writing
by Alan Bennett closely adapted from his prize winning play that was on
the boards of theaters around the globe before being captured for
posterity on film is 'rich and strange' and so full of those values of
achieving a true education that it serves not only the audience well
but presents a gold standard for educators pondering how to transform
their pupils into thinking, creative members of society.
Very briefly, THE HISTORY BOYS are eight brilliant but 'crass' young men in Cutler's Grammar School, each coming from backgrounds not considered 'quality' by the British class standards. These boys are rowdy but committed to gaining admission to Oxford - a step toward erasing their class standing and proving their worth. The headmaster (Clive Merrison), himself not too well educated, is bound to get these eight bright boys into the best schools and in that light he hires a new teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to buff the boys into a classy group who will be able to pass their essays and oral examinations. The existing teachers are the testy, frank Mrs. Lintott (a fine Frances de la Tour) and the massively obese Hector (Richard Griffiths in a stunning performance) who teaches 'general studies', a time when he lovingly coaxes the boys to embrace poetry, music, sentimentality, drama, art, and in general everything that allows them to take the moment and live it fully. The boys are torn between Irwin's pragmatic 'teach them how to take exams' approach Hector's teach them how to embrace intelligence and life. Hector is known among the boys for fondling and the knowledge is accepted by the lads until Hector is seen fondling one of the boys on his motorbike and reported. This opens all manner of avenues of introspection, one of the boys confides to Irwin that he is homosexual, another of the lads declares that Irwin is gay and attempts a physical liaison with him, and the permutations move an down the line. But the exams come and the joy of accomplishing goals puts a different twist on matters and the ending is a touching as any on film.
The entire cast is the original group that started the play and in addition to the fine performances by the adults, the boys are extraordinarily fine: Dominic Cooper (Dakin), Jamie Parker (Scripps), Samuel Barnett (Posner), James Corden (Timms), Sacha Dhawan (Akhtar), Samuel Anderson (Crowther), Russell Tovey (Rudge), and Andrew Knott (Lockwood). There is an obvious camaraderie among the actors that obviously grew from their long association with the roles. But the most impressive performance is the polished veteran actor Richard Griffiths who has created a role that will long remain in everyone's heart long after the movie has passed playing. For this viewer this is one of the very finest films of the past year! Highly Recommended. Grady Harp
A very good film - not setting black against white but looking at
flawed people and complex arguments. Also brilliantly funny.
Not quite as good as the play because some balance was lost - I think this was due to pressure of time, A lot of the classroom debate and argument was shortened, the glimpses into the present were omitted so that Irwin's descent into pure spin was not seen and a couple of the boys characters weren't fleshed out enough. This combined to throw the obviously shocking scenes, such as Hector's behaviour, too much into the centre of the film. The classroom performances also jarred as a bit too theatrical, whereas on stage they were believable, apt and very funny.
Worryingly realistic sets I thought I'd put the smell of school classrooms well behind me - and memorable performances from the entire cast. Jamie Parker, Andrew Knott, Samuel Barnett and Frances de la Tour were the standouts for me, but I still can't decide whether it was their performances or the characters they played.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Plot: A group of Yorkshire schoolboys in 1983 try to get into Oxbridge.
Alan Bennett is a celebrated playwright who has written for the screen several times. However on previous occasions he was telling a story, whilst in this instance he is trying to preach. He wants to pass on his knowledge. To tell us of the value of education, of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, of constantly striving to extend one's appreciation and understanding of high culture. It doesn't work.
Because Bennett started out as a working class Yorkshire lad this film is set in Yorkshire, in 1985, despite the complete absence of Yorkshire mannerisms, patterns of speech and period attitudes. Because Bennett went to Oxford University (which, like so many others, he has never gotten over) the characters all indulge in constant, faux-witty, intellectual wordplay rather than conversations. It is difficult to escape the belief that Bennett, rather than characterising them, instead uses them like puppets to show the audience how clever he is (every character, in effect, sounds like Alan Bennett). The result is deeply annoying. Furthermore because Bennett is gay the schoolboys are all deeply homophile and there is plenty of what can only be described as homosexual letching over young, fresh boys. One teacher, Richard Griffiths in full charm mode, is a serial groper of his pupils whilst another teacher, in a revolting scene, is propositioned, quite out of the blue and out of character, by one of his pupils. And as Bennett is both homosexual and an intellectual we get villains like the grasping headmaster obsessed only by league tables and the moronic PE teacher who is also an overbearing Christian (and therefore anti-homosexual). Both are, at best, shallow stereotypes. To win praise with the chattering classes there is a scene conducted entirely and pointlessly in French. Bennett, like an unruly child, seems determined to shout, "Look at me! Aren't I clever?" at the audience.
There are other flaws. The cinematography is beyond dull, the pacing non-existent, many characters have strikingly little to do and for a film about the value of knowledge there is a surprisingly ignorant section on the First World War that happily repeats falsehoods that were disproved decades ago. The ending meanwhile is deeply unsatisfying. The serial groper dies, cue melodrama, whilst all the boys get into Oxford, cue collapse of what little drama remained. In conclusion: pretentious tosh for metropolitan boobies.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This play and movie completely hoodwinked the critics and public. This
is one of the most overrated pieces of garbage to receive such
recognition in many years. I found the play appallingly empty and
driven by the titillation of sexy young men prancing in undies and a
trivialization of sexual molestation to give the whole experience
"sophistication." This ranks with The Children's Hour as one of the
most disgusting exploitations of homosexuality. Alan Bennett wants us
to be aroused and shocked at the plot revelations. However, no one else
appears to be shocked except for the headmaster. All the other
characters take the teacher's molestations as a coming of age
initiation. So if it's no big deal then what's the point of this story?
The entire plot resurrects material ranging from Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Browning Version, Butley, and Our Miss Brooks, throws it in a food processor and serves it with new and sexy napkins. The "debates" are drivel that are made to appear substantive. If you know what they are discussing you will realize it's all about nothing.
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