The History Boys

(2006) *** 1/2 R
109 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Directors: Nicholas Hytner, Nicholas Hytner, Nick Starr. Cast: Richard Griffiths, Clive Merrison, Frances De La Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dominic Cooper.

It's a perennial pastime of film critics to put this axe to the grindstone: plays don't translate well to film. Certainly there's something to this old chestnut: film is its own unique medium, and just as cinema's freedom of scope and editing isn't always practical or even possible on the stage, so too are the limitations of stage not always advisable on the screen (hence the screenwriting practice of "opening up" a play by adding more—and more visually appealing—settings and action).

And yet, in both mediums, content is supreme. The medium need not be the message and, to be frank, hardly ever should be. Which brings us to Alan Bennett's The History Boys, a theatrical phenomenon on the West End (where it won Olivier Awards for "Best New Play", "Best Actor," and "Best Direction") and Broadway (a record six Tony Awards, including "Best Play", "Best Director of a Play", "Best Featured Actress," and "Best Actor"). Just after the Broadway run, the play's director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) collected the much-lauded cast to immortalize the piece on film, and the results are suitably impressive.

The screen robs the play of one dimension, and Bennett's theatricality cannot be hidden, but the transcendent pleasures of Bennett's play remain intact: crackling dialogue, vibrant performances all around, and a depth of emotion and intellect. Though technically set in 1983 Yorkshire, The History Boys isn't limited by time and place; it's the sort of film that seems to be about everything: the theory and value of education, the multiplicity of sexuality, growing pains, moral choice, nostalgia, professional competition, feminism, the role of art in our lives, and indeed how a life should be spent.

Richard Griffiths plays Hector, a British prep school's roly-poly, chipmunk-toothed teaching institution. His name betrays his Grecian values, from the Socratic method to his eyebrow-raising penchant for enjoying the company of boys. Though stressed out about their applications to Oxford or Cambridge, his students appreciate Hector's irreverence and cultural enthusiasm while laughing off his sexual peccadillos.

Everything changes when the school's stuffy headmaster (Clive Merrison) brings in younger, leaner instructor Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to teach to the tests. As the adults—including Frances de la Tour's whip-smart Mrs. Lintott—debate how best to serve their young charges, the lads reveal bundles of contrary impulses. Fun-loving but capable of self-absorbed aloofness, gifted but nerve-wracked over their futures, "clever, but...crass," the boys bond over their collective social and hormonal plight.

As ever, the biggest teenage wild card is sex: a prize still elusive and mysterious, Hector's copped feels notwithstanding. Provocateur Dakin (Dominic Cooper) has a volatile mix of attractiveness, overconfidence, and sexual adventure, while his younger foil Posner (Samuel Barnett) laments, "I'm a Jew, I'm small, I'm homosexual, and I live in Sheffield. I'm fucked." Hector's class—which celebrates cultural literacy by way of theatrical and musical performance, object lessons in foreign language, and spirited, irreverent debate—proves irresistable to young minds, though they also know enough to intuit that Irwin may be their best hope for success at the gauntlet of college exams and interviews.

Hytner's simple approach is to follow the action, often with a handheld camera capturing the electricity of Hector's classroom and the boys' youthful energy. The direction and the performances soar because of a well-developed empathy. Hector's transgressions are hardly excused (though the boys are past the age of consent, the teacher clearly abuses his position), but Griffiths makes his hurt poignant and as palpable as his pedagogical brilliance. If his sex drive waylays him, his heart is always in the right place, as he exhorts his boys to retain at least one lesson, to pass on what they've learned.

The greatest adventure and saddest irony—taught alike by teachers to students and students to teachers—is that the big picture of history is writ small and ruthlessly unforgiving in each life—indeed, in every moment. Lintott encapsulates this history in the making as "the utter randomness of things." Though less poetic, one student's description is no less apt: "it's just one fucking thing after another."

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