One Thing After Another
A decidedly British take on education
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
THE HISTORY BOYS: Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Written by Alan Bennett, based on his play. Starring Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore, Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Jamie Parker, Russell Tovey, Samuel Anderson, Sacha Dhawan and Andrew Knott. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2006. 104 minutes. R.
|The history boys bookend teachers Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Lintott (Frances de la Tour)
The adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play The History Boys — recreated on film with director, writer and cast intact — is not, thankfully, a British retread of Dead Poets Society, no matter how the previews may try to make it out to be one. But what the film is about is something more nebulous and delicate than your average uplifting prep school story. The film finds its weight in the darker corners of schools, in the power struggle between teachers and students that plays out in ways both beautiful and crooked. Though overburdened with characters defined by just a few lines, The History Boys also looks sideways at the tangled friendships of boys who are not quite men, at their competition and boasting. There are a few women in the film, but the only one with any depth is Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), the history teacher, who gives a rousing speech about what history really is.
As for the boys — the young men, really, who all reprise their original roles — they seem to wear their parts like a second skin; of course, it helps to have seen few of them in film roles before. The adults are a bit more familiar; de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, who plays the unconventional teacher Hector, have done time in Harry Potter films. Of the boys, it’s Dominic Cooper as Dakin who’s the most magnetic, and that’s as it should be: Dakin is overconfident, brash and charming, wildly appealing to all sexes and ages. His opposite is thin, nervous Posner (Samuel Barnett), who explains, “I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual and I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked.”
The story’s basic tension comes from the hiring of Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who’s meant to class the boys up a bit for their entrance interviews at Oxford and Cambridge — the possibility of having eight students get into such elite colleges has the headmaster in a tizzy. Irwin wants the boys to liven up their essays, to approach their standard history topics from new angles, even if that means thinking of Stalin as a sweetie. But Hector, whose style runs more to quoting poetry and having the boys act out scenes from classic films, also wants more than standard learning from the boys; he’s just unconcerned with quantifiable results.
The History Boys is quite funny in places and visually nostalgic, its early-1980s setting emphasized through washed-out colors, as if the cold sunlight is too much for the English countryside (bright pop songs offer a welcome contrast). American audiences may find that some things don’t translate in the film though they may have in the longer play. A lack of scenes outside the school robs the boys’ lives of context, making their academic achievements seem to take place on a blank slate. There is a glibness to some of the class discussions that stalls the film out on a relatively shallow level. Education becomes a means to an end, no matter how much Hector tries to make it into something different.
But the film’s greatest disappointment is an epilogue of sorts that, though it’s carried over from the play, feels tacked on and undoes some of the story’s early charm. What felt appropriately sly, clever and determinedly upbeat suddenly turns grimly sentimental. But up until this point, this decidedly British take on education and, in a more general sense, learning is refreshingly unsaccharine; with the breezy, thoughtful work of its fresh-faced young stars, it certainly charms.
The History Boys opens Friday, Jan. 5 at the Bijou.