The History Boys - Review

by Wardog

In the most uninspired blurb she has written yet, Wardog reviews the recently released film of The History Boys.
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I think the highlight of going to see The History Boys in Oxford was the response to the line "I was a geographer. I went to Hull" as nervous titters, fearful of elitism, finally gave way to gales of full-blown laughter. Ah yes, we were among friends. The History Boy is a flawed movie, but also a thoroughly enjoyable one. And although it may or may not deserve its accusations of snobbery from Hull Geographers everywhere, its fast-paced, quote-saturated, self-referential dialogue celebrates learning with the sort of sincerity and spirit it impossible not to appreciate. Especially if you can recognise Housman before anyone else.

The plot of The History Boys is simple: a group of seven A Level students do extremely well in their exams and return to school for one more term in order to study for the Oxbridge entrance exams. The headmaster (played with extreme scenery chomping and facial hair twitching by Clive Merrison), doubtful of the suitability of his current staff - the down-to-earth, facts-facts-facts history teacher, Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour on fantastic form, as ever) and the gentle learning-for-learning's-sake English master, Hector (Richard Griffiths, slightly disappointing) - hires an ex-Oxford student, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore, a fantastically nuanced performance), to prepare the boys for the challenges ahead. Needless to say, this leads to tension, ostensibly between the two conflicting attitudes to teaching exemplified in Hector and Irwin; but, on a larger scale, between the kind of world that could create and include Hector (the past) and the kind of world that will welcome Irwin (the future); and also, on a personal level, the internal struggle in the boys as they have to learn to reconcile what they want for themselves with what the world wants from them.

Hector's teaching is idiosyncratic, for he fills his teaching hours with a chaotic but delightful hodgepodge of literature, music, philosophy and language. Cool, cynical Irwin, by contrast, advises the boys to ignore truth and titillate bored examiners by espousing outrageous views. But what Irwin primarily shows the boys is to be dissatisfied with themselves and, although this is less explicit in the film than in the play (in the play, Scripps mourns the boy who prayed so urgently in the cold church on the day of his A Level results), it still contributes to a sense of melancholy never entirely dispelled by the energy and style with which the boys learn to play the intellectual games Irwin teaches them. Although Irwin is a more sympathetic character in the film than in the play (in the play he goes on to become a politician, which gives him ample opportunity to put his verbal and moral slipperiness to practical use: "The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom"), it still feels like an unequal battle between Hectors' passionate teaching and Irwin's unfeeling intellectual games. Contrast this:

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now you have it, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."

against a man who responds "Good point" when Posner points out, in a discussion of the Holocaust, that he didn't lose relatives in the dissolution of the monasteries. One of the more difficult aspects of the film - for me - was Bennett's attempt to even the score by supplying Hector with a serious flaw to contrast against Irwin's callous detachment. It turns out that Hector has a habit of fondling the genitalia of his students "in an appreciative rather than investigative way" while giving them lifts home on the back of his motorbike. The boys roll their eyes and joke about this ("do you think I'm scarred for life") and Hector pointedly avoids the vulnerable, homosexual Posner who could actually be emotionally shaken by his advances. On the other hand, I find it difficult to overlook this as mere foible. Of course, I don't want to be all Daily Mail about it either but, later in the film, when Hector's habits have got him into the sort of trouble he quite frankly deserves, Dakin manages to get him reinstated by drawing attention to the fact that the headmaster touches up his (female) secretary. Yes, it is arguable that Hector groping his 18 year old charges is no worse than the headmaster groping his secretary but groping is still not acceptable behaviour and shouldn't be treated as an inevitable problem. In some ways, I can see some of the points Bennett may be making. I think there has to be a line between angry mobs wanting to burn paedophiles for the crime of existing and comparatively harmless sexual behaviour - but, surely, it can never be appropriate for someone in a position of authority and responsibility to engage in sexual harassment, however minor. Of course we can get into symbolics about Hector's very genuine love for the boys and the erotic and intimate nature of the transmission of knowledge - but I'mm with Mrs Lintott on this one: "a grope is a grope. It is not the annunciation."

As may have become apparent from the above, the movie is a little bit of a gay-em-up with people erupting out of closets and promising blow jobs left, right and centre. One of the major problems with the film is its translation from a stage play; I think audiences demand a higher degree of "realism" from films than they do of plays. By which I don't mean that films can't be fantastical or have be grounded in reality, just that we expect our dinosaurs to look real and our senses of place and time to be authentic (if that time is 2022 or the place is imaginary). And, consequently, the sudden revelations (of homosexuality usually) and tragic coincidences that provide much of the action of the play feel artificial and forced when converted to film, as if they happen to make points or stir our emotions rather than feeling like an authentic part of the story. This is a dangerous point to make because, of course, in any medium things happen to move the audience or hammer home a message but as soon as you notice them the impact, and the emotion, is lost. The film as a whole has a very static feel to it, as if it only occasionally remembers it is film and then offers up a tokenistic outdoor scene to appease its audience. Similarly, the dialogue and action tends to be rather stylised and I have read various complaints along the lines of "boys don't talk like that" and "why isn't Sheffield rife with noticeable unemployment" and "why is everyone gay" and "why isn't there racism?" But it's not meant to be realistic. That's not the point.

The differences between the film and the play are where the main weaknesses emerge. Not only does it fail to take advantage of a freer medium, but the ideas have become muddied and the need to keep things reasonably light for a film audience have stripped away some of Bennett's trademark melancholia. The boys' bewildered monologues on their Oxford Interview experiences have been replaced by what looks like an 80s music video montage of standard Oxford views. Irwin stays in television and never progresses to the true moral ambivalence of politics. Posner is "not happy but not unhappy about it" in teaching, instead of a neurotic reclusive who lives through the achievements of his friends.

But The History Boys is still a thoroughly enjoyable film. Stephen Campbell Moore offers an absolutely astonishing performance (I thought he was just some Bright Young Thing), capturing vulnerability and arrogance with equal conviction. The boys, too, are all splendid, particularly Dominic Cooper's tomcattish Dakin, Samuel Barnett's sensitive, lovelorn Posner and Jamie Parker who manages to bring a lot of depth and charm to the very religious Scripps. Altogether, it's engrossing and amusing and well worth going to see.
Themes: TV & Movies
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