The History Boys

Surely, Hector (Richard Griffiths) must be the sweetest old teacher ever to have groped the genitals of young men in an upscale English boarding school. So much so that the young men in question consider the groping less as than a precise attempt to take matters further but rather a bothersome idiosyncrasy that they shrug off, such is their affection for the old bugger.

Truth be told, they are immune to the groping which they must already have had plenty of before attending the present prestigious school. These are posh, sophisticated young men, destined to attend Oxford and Cambridge as a first step on the road to greatness and who appreciate Hector for his excellent grasp of poetry and film, not begrudging him a timid contact that would cause mayhem on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, remember that the story takes place in the 1980s. Things would probably be quite different now and Hector fired long before he actually is in the film (and quickly reinstated when one of his wards blackmails the stiff headmaster into keeping the harmless old man.)

And surely Alan Bennett, who wrote the script and delivers his usual sparkling dialogue is the most brilliant playwright on both sides of the aforementioned Atlantic. From his long collaboration to the Fringe to his enduring interest in the infamous Cambridge spies (see an Englishman Abroad, 1983 or A Question of Attribution, 1992) to his script for The Madness of King George, he proves a cliché-slayer of the first order and a great wit as well as a superb writer. He is well served in the deeply satisfying History Boys, his play now brought to the screen by the director Nicholas Hytner who had already made The Madness of King George in 1994. Turning such a heavily scripted play into film is no easy task but Hytner almost pulls it off, helped by a great cast, both the seasoned actors and the younger ones. (I say “almost” because any film made off a play will inevitably have moments when it feels more like a play than a film.)

The students have to deal with two antithetical styles of teaching—Hector’s which is all about learning because learning by itself is important and the inquisitive young minds lucky enough to attend his class wind their way from Aeschylus to Auden to pop music to the film version of Graham Greene’s End of the Affair (1955) with nary a pause to catch their breath—and a younger man, Irwin, hired especially to help them with proper body language and the newer cramming techniques designed to get them into the elite universities. (Like everyone else in the film, Stephen Campbell Moore who plays Irwin has perfect pitch but doesn’t it sometimes seem that the British are more blessed than others with knowing how to strike the exact right note?) The students are comfortable with Hector but intrigued by Irwin, with unexpected consequences.

As for the student themselves, Dakin, played by Dominic Cooper as the leader of the pack, curious about how far he can push teachers and students into more revelation about themselves than they care to make, and Posner (Samuel Barnett), gay, Jewish, and intellectual, add to this cast of remarkably well-balanced characters, all quite comfortable with their place in life and their surroundings.

Although the DVD of the History Boys has been out a while, this is one little gem that thoroughly engages our jaded minds. Put it on your Netflix queue–watching it will be time well spent.

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