The History Boys

2006, Movie, R, 104 mins

Review

HISTORY BOYS, THE
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Renowned English playwright Alan Bennett's sentimental play about a group of young "Oxbridge" hopefuls comes to the screen mostly intact, plus a few new scenes written by Bennett himself. The "History Boys" are a group of final-year students at Cutler's Grammar School for Boys who've made a record showing on their A-level exams and now have a good shot at getting into either Oxford or Cambridge. Eager to raise the profile of his humble Yorkshire school, the Headmaster (Clive Merrison) worries that education is no longer enough for Oxbridge. Despite the rock-solid foundation provided by the boys' rotund general-studies instructor, Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose rambling curriculum encompasses everything from A.E. Houseman to Gracie Fields, and by their history teacher, Mrs. Lintott (Frances De La Tour), the headmaster nonetheless fears that these boys lack "polish," and hires young Oxford graduate Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to refine their edges. Irwin urges his students to spice up dull papers by taking deliberately contrarian viewpoints, and encourages them to toss in as many quotes as possible. In other words, Irwin teaches the boys to use learning as a marketing tool, an attitude toward education directly at odds with the old-fashioned Hector's belief that learning should be loved for its own sake. Irwin and Hector, however, do share one thing in common: They're both repressed homosexuals. Irwin is particularly attracted to the good-looking but very straight student Dakin (Dominic Cooper), a lothario who's also adored by his sensitive, poetically minded classmate, Posner (Samuel Barnett). Hector's affection for his boys is an open secret at Cutler's, and the boys themselves tolerate his habit of groping them while riding them home on his motorbike. But as harmless as it may appear, this particular peccadillo gets Hector into serious trouble when he's spotted by an eagle-eyed crossing guard (Maggie McCarthy) who then informs the headmaster. Bennett's play was designed for — and adored by — theatergoers who feel better about themselves for laughing at jokes about Cardinal Wolsey and Anne of Cleves, and think themselves enlightened for having smiled understandingly upon genital groping by a sweet old man instead of condemning the behavior as a teacher's abuse of trust and power. Everyone else will find themselves reflected in the homophobic and crassly undereducated headmaster. The romance of the piece, which is set in 1983, relies on two archaic stereotypes that clearly have a place in Bennett's heart: the lonely teacher doomed to a life of unfulfilled lust and unrequited love for his underage charges, and the sad, sensitive adolescent in love with show tunes as well as the straight boy and who probably cried for days on end when the Smiths broke up. Shot in the weeks between the end of the play's smash run at London's National Theater and the start of an equally successful world tour, this surprisingly ugly looking film was directed by Bennett's past collaborator Nicholas Hytner (THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE) and features most of the play's original cast. Now seen for the first time in close-up, these "boys" are well past adolescence, which makes Bennett's sympathy for poor Hector a bit easier to take. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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