"The History Boys" is both a fine addition to the hoary old tradition of inspirational schoolteacher movies and a startlingly enjoyable subversion of it. Based on Alan Bennett’s successful London-to-Broadway play of the same name and shot with the original stage cast before they embarked on their world tour, "The History Boys" follows a group of 1980s Sheffield grammar school boys whose unexpectedly good A-level results lead the exultant headmaster to call them back for another term in order to prepare them for the exams to get into Oxford and Cambridge, and, hopefully, to move his school up in the national standings.
Even if the intricacies of the British school system remain as elusive and mysterious to you as they do to us, the substance of "The History Boys" will be evocative to anyone who cares to recall the college application races, where learning is stripped of any relevance other than how it would help gain entry into the best school. The boys, a boisterous, arrogant, endearing group, the darlings of the school, have until now been coached by Hector (Richard Griffiths), a waddling bundle of academic enthusiasm fond of quoting Housman in plummy tones, but just as fond of breaking up lessons with singing and reenactments of scenes from "Brief Encounter." The headmaster, with his vague, classist aspirations, judges that the boys need "polish" and brings in a ringer â€” Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young Oxford graduate who’s more concerned with results and strategy than enjoyment and meaning.
There are two stealthy thrills hidden within "The History Boys" â€” the first is that the film actually manages to convey an unfeigned intellectual excitement. Bennett’s crackling dialogue never (well, rarely â€” Frances de la Tour, as Mrs. Lintott, gets one jarring monologue on the place of women in history that’s too theatrical for its own good) steps outside of the bounds of realistically smart, grounded conversation. The boys are, indeed, boys â€” clever and cocky, they banter and argue and make dirty jokes and are terrifyingly more alive than their teachers, whose indulgent hold on authority is undermined by the fact that they seem half enraptured by the youth and promise of their pupils.
Or totally enraptured. The other unexpected pleasure of "The History Boys" is the film’s nonchalant frankness about sexuality in a single-sex school. Posner (Samuel Barnett, a standout) is hopelessly in love with head heartbreaker Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who’s perfectly aware of the fact â€” it’s hard to miss when Posner, in one of the best scenes, sings "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" to him across the classroom. Dakin’s also refreshingly matter-of-fact and unbothered by Posner’s worship; he’s developed a bit of an unusual crush, himself. Hector has a habit of giving boys a ride home on his moped and taking the opportunity to grope them; the boys treat this more as an annoyance than a violation (one asks another, jokingly, if he thinks they’ve all been scarred for life), though it ultimately proves Hector’s downfall. Even the cool-minded Irwin gets drawn into a dangerous flirtation, as if the roles of teacher and student are inherently balanced on the edge of instruction and enticement.
Nicholas Hytner is an old hand at directing plays-turned-functional- screenplays â€” the director of London’s National Theatre, he’s previously shepherded "The Madness of King George" and "The Crucible" to film. He’s managed to avoid the airlessness that plagues most stage-to-screen transfers, in part because his excellent cast seems too vibrant to be contained on one set, even if the main part of the action is confined to the classroom. Of the boys, Cooper and Barnett are memorable â€” most of the others are some degree of underwritten, though their chemistry as a group is unparalleled. Griffiths is also very good, a great, ludicrous and tragic figure dramatically unlike the average teacher seen on screen (between this film and "Half Nelson," 2006 seems to be the year we took an axe to the legacy of "Dead Poets Society" and "To Sir With Love").
Having never seen the play, we can’t speak to what was lost in translation. Given the differences in run time, there’s clearly plenty that didn’t make the cut, including, apparently, a present day frame that gives the events in the center some perspective. When the film does pull back, finally, we wished it hadn’t â€” not only because of the clumsiness of the closing, but also because there’s a moment shortly before the conclusion that would have made for the most delightfully anarchic happy ending in the history of school stories. Take that, John Keating!
Opens in limited release November 21st.
+ "The History Boys (Fox Searchlight)