16 November 2006 | JamesHitchcock
There is much to enjoy, quite apart from the pleasures of nostalgia.
The title of this film is probably an adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury's well-known university novel, "The History Man", made into an excellent TV series in the early eighties. Like Bradbury's novel, it is set in an educational institution, in this case a boys' grammar school in the Sheffield of the early eighties. It focuses on a group of history students who are preparing to take the Oxbridge entrance exams. (At this period, students who wished to apply to Cambridge or Oxford normally stayed on at school for another term after taking their A-Levels and then took a special exam in December).
Apart from the boys, the two main characters are two of their teachers. Hector, an elderly man approaching retirement, is the general studies teacher whose role is to give the boys some general cultural background. He has a deep love of learning and believes strongly in the value of knowledge for its own sake. He has, however, become something of a figure of fun to the boys, partly because of his portly figure and his occasionally eccentric teaching style, but mostly because he is a homosexual (although trapped in an unhappy marriage), given to fondling his pupils, especially when giving them a lift on his motorcycle.
Irwin is a young history specialist brought in by the school to coach the boys for this examination. Unlike Hector, who has a deep reverence for truth as an absolute value, Irwin takes the Pontius Pilate line, "what is truth?", and encourages the boys to question received ideas about history. Like Hector, he too is homosexual, and becomes involved with Dakin, one of the boys. Dakin, who is bisexual, is also having an affair with Fiona, the headmaster's attractive secretary; another boy, Posner, who is just realising that he is gay, has an unrequited crush on Dakin.
Bennett's play was recently used by A A Gill, the left-wing TV critic of the "Sunday Times", as a stick with which to beat conservative historians. (He was thinking of the likes of Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and David Starkey). He compared their revisionist approach to history to that of Irwin which he saw as intellectually dishonest, mere contrarianism for the sake of stirring up controversy (and publicity). That seemed to me, however, to be a misinterpretation. Bennett was not criticising historians who seek to re-evaluate the past rather than simply repeating traditional received ideas. Irwin may not be interested in truth for its own sake, but his approach to history is advocated less as a method of philosophical inquiry than as an exam-passing technique, his argument being that a deliberately controversial approach is more likely to impress Oxbridge dons jaded from marking too many papers. (In any case, some of Irwin's ideas- such as the claim that the Allies as well as the Germans were to blame for the outbreak of World War One- would not have been particularly controversial among historians in the eighties).
The film has been criticised for its homosexual themes, some reviewers going so far as to attack Bennett for allegedly defending paedophilia, which strikes me as another misconception. The boys in this film would all be aged eighteen or nineteen, and therefore of the age of consent, even for homosexual acts. The issue which Bennett raises is not "Is paedophilia defensible?", but "Are sexual relationships appropriate between teachers and pupils, regardless of age?", and his answer appears to be "no". Hector's penchant for fondling his pupils has, despite his gifts as a teacher, led to his becoming a laughing-stock and diminished his authority among the boys. Bennett certainly concentrates on homosexuality (apart from the Dakin-Fiona affair, there is surprisingly little- for a film about teenage boys- mention of heterosexual relationships), but it must be remembered that he is himself gay and, like most writers, concentrates on those issues which are most important in his own life. The film would doubtless be very different, and possibly more popular with heterosexual audiences, if the scriptwriter had been heterosexual. It would, however, be unfortunate if audiences allowed themselves to be dissuaded from seeing the film.
I felt that Bennett raised some potentially interesting themes which he did not pursue, such as the female teacher's feminist comments about the role of women in history and the discussion about whether the Holocaust is a subject that can be studied by historians like any other, but it seems to me that the film was not so much a film of ideas as a study in personalities and relationships. Richard Griffiths was very good as Hector, bringing out both sides of his personality. On the surface Hector is a larger-than-life, jovial character, ever ready for a laugh with the boys, but beneath that surface he is a sensitive, often unhappy, man. I also liked Stephen Campbell Moore's cynical but also vulnerable Irwin and Clive Merrison's pompous, autocratic headmaster (even if he was a bit of a caricature). The boys mostly emerged as distinct personalities in their own right- the handsome, cocksure Dakin, the shy, tormented Posner, the hearty sportsman Rudge, and so on.
The other thing I liked about the film was that, in spite of some serious themes and a tragic denouement, it is often brilliantly funny. Like a number of other reviewers I was particularly struck by the scene, played all in French without subtitles, where Hector gets the boys to act out a scene in a brothel and then (when the headmaster unexpectedly enters) tries to pretend that they were re-enacting a scene from a wartime hospital! There are also some perceptive one-liners, from Hector Irwin and the boys, such as the paradoxical, but often true, observation that the best way to forget something is to commemorate it. This is a film with much to enjoy, quite apart from the pleasures of nostalgia. (I attended a grammar school very similar to this one in the late seventies before going to Cambridge). 7/10.