The History Boys
Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Documentary; Cast biography.
ALAN Bennett’s The History Boys swept all before it in theatrical form, winning four Olivier Awards after its run at The National and six Tony Awards following its Broadway showing.
Now comes the film, boasting the same writer (Bennett), director (Nicholas Hytner) and cast. Yet while undoubtedly witty and thought-provoking, the film version isn’t quite the A grade experience that many of its accolades suggest.
Set in a Northern grammar school in the mid-’80s, the story focuses on eight promising young lads as they are primed for their Oxbridge exams.
Instilling them with old-school values is their eccentric English master, Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose teaching style comes in stark contrast to the sly tactics employed by the school’s new hotshot Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).
Hence, while Irwin attempts to make the boys think for themselves and even lie to impress (by adopting alternative thinking to issues such as Stalin and The Holocaust), Hector determines to provide them with many of the values they can take through life.
The boys, themselves, are a cocky group and include the likes of good-looking ladies man Dakin (Dominic Cooper) and awkwardly gay Posner (Samuel Barnett).
But while their intelligence is beyond question, the arrogance of their youth belies the doubts each of them has about social standing, learning capacity and, above all else, sexuality.
In spite of its roots in the theatre, The History Boys makes the transition from stage to screen surprisingly well.
It’s brilliantly performed, witty and poignant and offers an intelligent examination of our education system from both the teachers’ and students’ perspectives.
It will also prompt many viewers to reminisce about their own learning experiences and any teachers that particularly inspired them.
But the film isn’t without fault. The eloquent script is sometimes too clever for its own good and some of the jokes border on pretentious.
Anyone who had avoided seeing it on stage for fear of its ‘luvvy’ tendencies and smug intelligence may find such frustrations remain with the film, especially during an extended sequence in French (without subtitles) and during some of the smarter literary references.
Likewise, Bennett’s decision to make both of the inspirational male teachers frustrated homosexuals could turn a lot of viewers off, particularly given his provocative portrayal of both.
As excellent as Griffiths and Moore are as Hector and Irwin respectively, audiences are still required to sympathise with some of their more dubious feelings and actions.
Hector, for example, likes to offer boys a ride home on his motorbike so that he can touch them up along the way – but finding humour and sympathy in such a scenario feels awkward at best.
While Irwin advocates lying to impress the Oxbridge examiners without ever really being honest with himself concerning his feelings towards Dakin. A final scene between the two of them is well-played but frequently uncomfortable.
Such moments are designed to add depth to characters and provoke fierce discussion afterwards but the film would still have had plenty to offer without such diversions.
Instead, it means that the film exists in a moral grey area that threatens to detract from some of its brilliance.
But then I doubt whether Bennett and Irwin, especially, would want viewers to like the film just because the majority of critics say they should!
It’s one of the film’s strongest life lessons that there’s always room for an alternative opinion and given its power to provoke, it remains highly recommended – both in the way it challenges and entertains.
Running time: 110mins