Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Many of the best movies about the politics of education (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Browning Version) had great success first as plays, but few are as fortunate as The History Boys: writer Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner carried the entire cast of their National Theatre Production over to the film, without exception. Bennett's story follows a group of talented public school boys being prepared to compete for entrance to Oxford and Cambridge. The generic American version of this story has devolved into 'magic teacher' tales like Dead Poets Society and The Emperor's Club. The History Boys returns to the notion that school is a political battleground where one generation learns the hypocrisies of the previous.
The History Boys is funny, insightful and frank about school life; a big concern is the incompatibility of the traditional school structure to newer attitudes toward homosexuality. Even more timely is the play's acknowledgment that modern students are often pushed into competing for places at choice colleges, and encouraged to 'game' their studies to impress entrance examiners. College self-evaluation essays have really become exercises in self-marketing.
A small group of precocious 1980s boys' school seniors are held over for a special term to prepare for college entrance exams and interviews. History teachers Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and Hector (Richard Griffiths) have inspired the boys with exciting lectures, and in Hector's case, an unorthodox classroom style. The priggish, glory-hungry headmaster (Clive Merrison) hires the young instructor Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). He hopes Irwin can help the boys bring a winning 'style' to their interviews. Whereas Hector's teachings value truth, insight and the pursuit of facts without regard to their practical application, Irwin stresses image. Essays, for example, can be made more interesting by taking a controversial stance to attract attention, and using decorative quotations chosen for impact over pertinence. The process becomes more problematic when the headmaster receives a complaint that Hector is 'groping' his boys when he gives them rides home on his motorcycle. Homosexuality is more than just a joking subject among the boys, as one of them is convinced that he might be gay. Young Dakin (Dominic Cooper) is the only boy carrying on a successful love affair with a girl, and even he has a hard time distinguishing his academic admiration for Irwin from his sexual attraction.
Funny, literate and sentimental, The History Boys never sacrifices its brain to pander to its audience. The boys in this particular English school aren't from a social background that considers higher education a birthright. They must work hard to get the kind of grades that will attract the top schools. The headmaster drives them toward this success for the prestige factor alone. Their beloved teacher Hector gives them such a well-rounded humanist appreciation of life and history that they forgive his obsolete habits (swatting them in class) and his more serious -- even if benign -- sexual behavior.
Hector's reckless habit may be "harmless" or a justification for immediate dismissal, but it isn't the main conflict in the story. The students can work up a good pretense of cynicism but they are also interested in learning the truth. When Irwin steers them to impress interviewers with superficial flash, an entertaining style and the 'right' responses, the boys have to come to terms with what their education really means to them.
The boys are well drawn, considering that each is given a handy label. One is the pretty boy attractive to both women and men. One is religious, one is unsure of his sexuality and another is a jock who barely got into the special class and can't see himself academically impressing anybody. A black student and an Indian aren't given much distinction beyond their ethnic origin, but are at least given their fair share of playwright Bennett's smart dialogue.
The history masters (teachers) are very well drawn. Curiously, none of them attended the prestigious colleges, and they remember their school days with great affection. Hector clearly has thrown his entire soul into his teaching. He runs a stimulating and inspiring class and is so respected by his student that they accept his bad sex habit. Mrs. Lintott is efficient and motivated but feels constricted by the male-dominated school structure. Mr. Irwin comes into the school as a specialist to help the boys hit one goal -- ace the essays and impress the interviewers -- and is subtly influenced by Hector's humanist values.
The boys recite from poetry and literature but their classroom also becomes a performance stage. They sing old standards and recite fun scenes from movies, all of which parallel the sexual tensions within the group. Possibly more stylized in the stage presentation, the emphasis on gay sexuality plays as a bit too strange, and most viewers are likely to reject the film's tolerant attitude toward all the sex play in a school situation. On film, Hector's behavior is blatantly unacceptable. Although the film has no sex scenes, it is verbally graphic and not for children. Nobody mentions it, but we can't help but feel that the boys might be better adjusted if the school system were coeducational. Perhaps the distraction of girls would prevent the boys from concentrating on their studies.
Unlike the standardized 'magic teacher' formula, there is no big game or concert or other rigged finale to work up to a faked emotional crisis. The boys instead go off to their college interviews and we see the impressive yards and buildings of England's most prestigious schools. There are perhaps a few too many separate resolutions, including an abstract scene where we learn what will be in store for the overachieving graduates.
As can be expected, all of the actors are exceptionally good. Frances de la Tour and Stephen Campbell Moore make striking impressions while Richard Griffiths gets top honors for his flawed but loveable Hector. Director Hytner re-stages the play well for the camera; even his musical montage segues are tastefully done. The camerawork is attractive but unfussy.
Fox's DVD of The History Boys looks fine although the compression bit rate might be a little light; even in the first scene the image is soft. As this is a specially prepared early screener and not final product, there's not much point in evaluating image quality.
This disc does appear to have a full complement of extras. Writer Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hynter share an informative track addressing the changes made to the play but, sadly, do not discuss the interesting cast in personal detail. More information on the cast of The History Boys appears in two featurettes. History Boys around the World: Tour Diaries covers their touring engagements with the play in the Far East, Australia and New York. It's structured like fast-paced TV fluff, while the piece on the making of the film Pass It On: The History Boys on Screen is less rushed, giving us more input from the various personalities.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The History Boys rates:
Supplements: Audio Commentary with director Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett; Featurette docus History Boys around the World: Tour Diaries and Pass it On: The History Boys on Screen
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson