Grade: A-History Boys, The (2006)

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper, Frances de la Tour

Release Company: Fox Searchlight Pictures

MPAA Rating: R

Official Site
Best Gay Cinema

Hytner: The History Boys


Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, UK
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, UK Photographic Print
Adams, Peter
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Critics' Choice Video


Having taught high school English for over twenty years and having the good fortune to participate in a two-week seminar at Oxford to see how the British educational system functions, I'm predisposed to appreciate dramas that deal with that subject matter--like The Browning Version from the fifties to The History Boys, now emerging in art houses around the U.S.

The easiest criticism of Nicholas Hytner's The History Boys lies in attacking its theatricality. An easy mark since Hytner merely transposed Alan Bennett's original play and transported the entire cast, which performed in his London National Theatre production, before the play moved to Broadway in time to sweep the 2006 Tony Awards. On occasion a play can only sustain its power on film if the director remains true to its theatrical roots; it would suffer if made more cinematic simply because it can. Look no further than A Chorus Line for a blatant example of how a powerful dramatic musical loses focus by inserting Manhattan scenic pans and flashbacks. So what if Hytner's adaptation doesn't appeal to the vast majority of film viewers--you can't possibly dumb down Bennett's deliciously droll prose enough for the masses anyway!

Hytner retains enough source material to create the most literate screenplay of 2006, and the camera allows him to move in closer to the characters than theatrical audiences could ever experience. Snippets of the town and glimpses of field trips to Broughton Castle, Fountains Abbey, Oxford, and Cambridge are enough. The real drama all takes place within the classrooms and with what's going on inside each character. Thus, the film can reach its intended audience; after all, not all of us in the hinterlands can fashion a trip to Broadway or the West End.

Deliberately avoiding any pretense of being completely cinematic, Hytner preserves the play's witty dialogue, maintains the closed classroom set pieces, and even retains a blatant theatrical post script finale with its key characters—eschewing the now cliché film device of showing what the characters a currently doing over end credits. It an art house breath of fresh air after a plethora of mainstream mush.

The History Boys articulates critical insight into the British educational system, exposing both its strengths and weaknesses while developing sympathy with its main characters. Although the eight boys aspiring to attend Oxford or Cambridge act as a unit, each is individualized. Dakin (Dominic Cooper) has the exquisitely handsome appearance, mercurial energy, and flirtatious banter to charm the pants off anyone (and becomes the object of adoration for multiple cast members). His polar opposite silently pines for him--Posner (Samuel Barnett) is sensitive, relatively shy, and believes that he is "fucked" since he's small, Jewish, homosexual, and from Sheffield. The other six boys play lesser, but important roles in the production.

The teachers form the main framework for the production with the clueless Headmaster (Clive Merrison) thinking that he is actually running his grammar school. Coming from a working class environment, he is excited at the possibility that they have gifted students striving to be accepted at Oxford and Cambridge, which would be a historic first for the school. He wants to ensure that the glory is secure, so he hires Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) as a special instructor to provide the proper coaching. He fears that his maverick English teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths) isn't up to the task--Hector's methods are too unorthodox and eccentric.

Indeed, our initial encounter in Hector's classroom is classic British seminar repartee, where students and teacher are obviously continuously engaged in offbeat banter--prime material to develop future Monty Python troupe members. The class discussion/readings often go into spontaneous directions--a musical segue, a movie scene, a hilarious French language improvisation inside a "brothel" that is instantly modified when the Headmaster enters. Hector's intention isn't to turn out literary giants; he sees that as an artificial world of pretentious intellectuals:

Words said in that reverential way that is somehow Welsh. That's what the tosh is for. Brief Encounter, Gracie Fields, Ivor Novello--it's an antidote. Sheer calculated silliness.”
Irwin, on the other hand, comes with an immediate practical purpose--to coach the Oxbridge students to play the game. His classes take an entirely different direction. He's not concerned that these students "discover themselves" or strive to find "truth." Creative verbal play and seeking to be outrageous and “different” are the keys to what he demands--essentially practice intellectual masturbation. When discussing the premise that Hitler was greatly misunderstood as practice for the process, Irwin gets a rise from quiet Posner for the first time (because it touches an emotional chord with his relatives who survived the Holocaust). Due to Irwin's dispassionate praise for politically incorrect ideas, both Posner and Dakin then realize that seeking "truth" just isn't part of the game for aspiring Oxford/Cambridge scholars.

Sexuality issues frequently surface in the play--not only due to Posner openly musing about his homosexual feelings or fleeting queries about past artists who were “nancies.” Both Hector and Irvin are repressed homosexuals, but this hardly remains a secret to their perceptive students. This also plays a significant part in the plot--just one more way to look at the nature of adjusting to educational expectations. Acting plays such an important role in the British system, whether it's an intellectual guise or social-emotional one.

A key moment takes place during a private tutoring session where both Posner and Hector reveal more intimate sides of their thinking during a reading of Hardy. Hector muses about his own situation as he ages:

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something--a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is along dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."
After a long summer and fall season of mind-numbing film fodder, The History Boys is refreshing--a film that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. It's superb ensemble cast work flawlessly with each other, both in timing and in delivering extremely literate dialogue so smoothly that we don't question the students' ability to speak this way. A far cry from the hip-hop slang so common today, it does offer hope that the future retains hope--that something will be passed on (Hector's sentiments) no matter what field these young actors eventually go into.

The film also offers a far more revealing and truthful examination of character and the educational system than the pandering cattle feed found in Mr. Holland's Opus. It just won't play to as large an audience, but that doesn't matter. (Borrowing from the Rudge character) the mainstream can have their pop culture crap; I'll take Hytner's "crap" any day, even when the film looks and feels like a play. It's closer to the "crap" that I like. Bookmark and Share


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