THE HISTORY BOYS (Review)
It’s 1983 and eight young bright boys from Cutlers’ Grammar School are up for acceptance at Cambridge and Oxford, and everyone (particularly their headmaster, played by Clive Merrison) wants them in.
Enter one Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young upstart teacher, drafted to get the boys ready for their exams and interviews. Irwin’s arrival in Cutlers’ halls though, encroaches on the territory of the boys’ regular teachers, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour, Madame Olympe Maxime from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths, incidentally enough, also recognizable to global audiences due to the Harry Potter franchise, where he plays Uncle Vernon).
Based on the multi-Tony winning play by Alan Bennett, The History Boys is a wonderfully moving film that chronicles the boys’ final term before university, as they are schooled in life, the nature of history, and the true meaning of learning (as opposed to being “properly educated”).
Adapting his own play for the big screen, Bennett (who also wrote Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears) re-teams with his The Madness of King George director Nicholas Hytner, to afford us a poignant snapshot of the shaping of the young mind, of students looking to their teachers for answers, and of teachers doing their best to impart knowledge, to, as Hector puts it, “Pass the Parcel.”
With a script that has genuine wit, dollops of irony, and an earnest heart, Bennett takes us back to that time before adulthood, when we were still uncertain of what life was ultimately going to be all about, and what exactly of the things we were studying was really going to be on the exam.
He also takes us decisively into that area always found to one degree or another in these sorts of teacher-student films (sometimes, the most important things to learn are those things that don’t end up on the test) through Hector and his subject of “General Studies”; a catch-all phrase for the unquantifiables that are taught by the aging eccentric.
Under Hector’s guidance, the boys taste of a mish-mash of poetry, literature, film, and song, all the while wondering exactly which of these they will be tested on.
And while Hector demands honesty, even if it may apparently seem frivolous or whimsical, Irwin endorses the use of the lie to make one seem “interesting” and different, to help one stand out (all in the hopes of getting noticed by the universities, of course).
And therein lies one of the major sources of tension in The History Boys, the decidedly modern approach to education which Irwin takes, clashing as it does with not just Hector’s laissez faire style, but Mrs. Lintott’s more traditional touch as well.
To Irwin’s mind, true and eloquent wisdom exists to be used as “gobbets,” handy quotes with which to pepper one’s papers and essays, decorative wallpaper for rooms which only look the way they do so as to elicit the response, “Oh, my. Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Certainly different.”
In Irwin’s world, people don’t say what they mean or what they truly feel, they only say what they think will grab the right people’s attention.
This schism between teaching styles understandably affects the boys as well, particularly Dakin (Dominic Cooper) who finds he rather likes Irwin, but feels Irwin hasn’t really taken a shine to him. Meanwhile, Posner (Samuel Barnett) feels the acute pain of unrequited love for Dakin, and knows that even though this could just be a “phase,” thinks that perhaps, he doesn’t want it to be one.
At this point, it’s important to point out that homosexuality, while not exactly a theme in The History Boys, is still nonetheless a vital component of the narrative, as at least two characters could be gay, one is definitely gay, and another could be bisexual. (This is, after all, an R rated film.)
Having said that, it should also be pointed out that this is not some gay romp through Queer Central High. Among other things, The History Boys is also about our quest to find a certain amount of contentment, if not happiness, in our lives. The fact that these characters are yearning for members of the same sex is entirely incidental to that universal yearning for personal bliss.
With effective performances across the board (the film does boast the same cast as its theatre incarnation), the stand-outs are the adult principals (particularly Griffiths, whose touching performance got a well-deserved BAFTA nomination for Best Actor),* and Barnett, whose Posner is the most heart-wrenchingly human of the eight boys, the wretched pain of adolescent longing clear to see in his demeanor.
And granted, with eight boys, some will be less-defined than others, but what does shine through is the camaraderie of a shared experience, the ties of a close-knit band of young men striving towards a common goal. The chemistry and banter between them is casual and believable, undoubtedly achieved after hundreds of previous performances on the stage.
To the sounds of The Smiths, The Clash, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, and a moving rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” The History Boys move through a pivotal moment in everyone’s life.
At the cusp of adulthood, they savor, just as we once did, those tantalizing moments before university and the long road that unwinds beyond its gates, preparing themselves for the whims of choice and circumstance, elements that in the light of tomorrow’s dawn, will be seen as history.
* Additionally, de la Tour got a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress.