THE HISTORY BOYS A-
Great Britain (104 mi) 2005 d: Nicholas Hytner
At a time when educational “values” seem lost in a politicized morass, when cultural debates have been reduced to either televised sound bites or talk radio where one side out shouts the other, when it all seems like such an obnoxious way to express oneself, along comes this delightfully insightful film about high school students that is filled with humor, intelligence and wit, that gets to the heart of the characters with their precise choice of words. School funding has been steadily reduced, forcing cuts in programs such as the arts, which is really altering the cultural landscape of the country. Everyone knows who sells $200 basketball shoes on TV, but are only vaguely familiar with any except the top-tiered writers. To ask about painters or composers is simply unthinkable, as if these are age old arts, the kinds of things people studied before the invention of television. How boring. Then along comes this eminently appealing play captured on film using the same director and lead parts that scored London and Broadway stage success winning six Tonys, adapted by its author Alan Bennett for the screen, altering to some degree the play’s original emphasis.
Using the classroom as the stage, we peek into the lives of some of the brightest kids in the working class town of Yorkshire, specifically 8 kids who scored so well on their college entrance exams that they actually have a good chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge, the icons of British class and intelligence, and are taking an extra term just to prepare them for that possibility. Not since Michael Winterbottom’s insightful 1996 film JUDE, an adaptation of the late 19th century Thomas Hardy novel Jude the Obscure, have the complexities of British thought, class, and education been explored with such relish and detail. This film is a huge delight in large part driven by the same elements that made the play such a success—smart, witty, eloquent and precise language as well as the emotional development of character, featuring likeable kids who are undeniably appealing because of their outspoken honesty, especially their ability to express themselves so clearly, and their wonderful support of one another. No shrinking violets among them, they’re each constantly aware of everything that happens around them, including each other’s business, spending hours of preparation each night, coming to class alertly aware of what’s expected of them, and in class they perform magnificently, offering lucid, well thought-out opinions, reciting literary passages, performing improvised dramatic skits in a foreign language, singing show tunes, including brief excerpts from movies or plays where their teacher has to guess the original source, like playing Stump the Band.
The teachers are just as outstanding, featuring the jocular yet rotund Richard Griffiths as Mr. Hector, a brilliantly inspirational sixtyish renaissance man who exudes the very soul of knowledge, who plies the curiosity of youth with neverending quotes from poets of all ages, always finding the right turn of phrase to capture any given moment, and in one scene when he’s alone with just one student dissecting a passage from Thomas Hardy, the density of thought in that brief span of time borders on the sublime. Frances de la Tour is a rock of Gibraltar, her demeanor never changing, offering her expertise on her subject of history, becoming brilliant at one point when suggesting a woman might be present at their college interviews, going on an eloquent description of history as a commentary on the “continuing incapabilities of men.” The school headmaster (Clive Merrison) on the other hand, is a severely repressed, awards-driven administrator who thinks only of the image of his school, thinking the students themselves are too crass, but need special tutoring from a recent Oxford alum, someone who can shortcut their path to the promised ground. Stephen Campbell Moore plays young Mr. Irwin, a brilliant student himself who distinguishes his argument by choosing the road not taken, believing no one disputes the truth, which is irrelevant, that all applicants agree on the same facts, so they need to learn how to play the devil’s advocate, take the position no one else would dare make, and in doing so, stand out in a crowd. In the classroom, the young and the old are pitted against one another, leaving the students somewhat befuddled when it’s clear their methods are starkly at odds with each other.
There’s a brisk pace to the film, wonderfully expressed with the musical selection of the Cure or The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” as the kids are checking out books from the library, moments that might otherwise be sluggish or forgettable. A continuing thread throughout the film are gay themes, with Mr. Hector being more open about it than the closeted Mr. Irwin, but also in the portrait of one of the students, Posner (Samuel Barnett), who can’t take his eyes off one of the other students, Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who is something of a hunk, the only student who regularly flaunts his sexual prowess. One of the best scenes in the entire film is Posner’s heartfelt rendition of the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Bewitched Samuel Barnett -The History BoysOST YouTube (3:12), emphasizing the male attraction in the lyrics, (“l sing to him, each spring to him, and worship the trousers that cling to him”), directing every line towards Dakin. There’s also a beautiful epilogue segment, cast in a differering hue, portrayed with a kind of afterlife omniscience, as the kids sit around and reveal what careers they chose in their lives. It’s an especially poignant scene that works only because of the steady build up of shared moments with each student, who are now intimately familiar to us.