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)
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