There is a moment in Nicholas Hytner’s film of Alan Bennett’s 2004 play, The History Boys, where the boys’ eccentric (to put it mildly) mentor and teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths), talks about those rare and wonderful — even essential — moments when one encounters a thought, a way of looking at the world through art, that one had previously believed unique to one’s self. These are sublime (if intensely subjective) moments where art goes beyond communication into true connection, making the viewer/reader/ listener feel less alone in the world. It’s that magical sense of camaraderie — bridging thousands of miles and sometimes even centuries — born of the sense that someone else “gets it” the same way you do.
From my own personal view, this is something The History Boys does with almost frightening frequency. Over the course of its two hours, I realized that I’d “been” many of its characters at different points in my life — in essence if not necessarily in deed. That’s a wholly subjective view of the film, though it’s one that I suspect a lot of viewers will share to varying degrees.
As a concept, The History Boys isn’t terribly original. It shares the heritage of a long line of works focusing on English schools and teachers — Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Browning Version, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, To Sir, With Love in their various literary, theatrical and cinematic incarnations. (And that doesn’t even consider such American counterparts as Up the Down Staircase, Dead Poets Society, etc.) Even so, The History Boys may just be the best and most perceptive such work to date — and one that disproves yet again that bewhiskered canard that plays don’t make for “good cinema.” Yes, there is a strong sense of theater to the film, but it’s never in the least stagy, despite the final scenes which indulge — effectively — in devices that seem more theatrical than cinematic.
The story follows a group of brilliant but generally unformed boys who are up for shots at the two big English universities — Cambridge and Oxford. For personal glory — and the good of the school — the headmaster (Clive Merrison) wants the boys’ talents and presentation honed beyond the level provided by their usual teachers, specifically beyond that of Hector, who conducts his classes in ways that can only be called unorthodox. Hector offers the boys a broad range of learning that manages to butt the poetry of A.E. Housman up against the music-hall likes of Gracie Fields. One is as apt to find his boys restaging the final scene of Irving Rapper’s Bette Davis vehicle Now, Voyager (1943) — carefully pointing out that the title is derived from Walt Whitman, of course — as tackling Shakespeare. That Hector is also prone to offering the lads a ride home on his motorcycle (specifically to give them an in-transit grope) is a separate and thornier matter, but one the boys pretty much take in stride. (This aspect of the film will likely be troubling to some viewers.)
The headmaster, however, brings in a new teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore, Bright Young Things), to better prepare them — mindless of the fact that Irwin comes with his own set of issues and peculiarities. The plot, however, is less important here than the shrewd characterizations and finely honed dialogue.
In the world of movies, it’s a rare treat to find anything as sophisticated and witty as Alan Bennett’s screenplay, but it’s a work that’s careful to keep the same kind of balance of pop-culture and erudition found in Hector’s classes, making it anything but pompous. One can quibble that the dialogues are cleverer and wittier than those found in real life, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a great pity that real life dialogue isn’t this good. The performances are all of the highest caliber, and it’s remarkable how fresh the actors — who have performed the same roles countless times on stage — make it seem.
Nicholas Hytner’s direction keeps the camera moving in a way that imbues the largely dialogue-driven story with a sense of immediacy. And high marks go to whoever decided to take the old Rodgers and Hart standard “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and incorporate it into the film. Taking a song with lyrics written by a gay man for a woman to sing — and giving it to the besotted Posner (Samuel Barnett) to express his feelings for the presumably straight Dakin (Dominic Cooper) — was a masterstroke. And having gay singer Rufus Wainwright reprise it over the ending credits is a touch that brings home the film’s themes of subjugated feelings with a vengeance. It’s the perfect wrap up for a film as close to perfect as you’re likely to find just now. Rated R for language and sexual content.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke