Dir: Nicholas Hytner. UK.2006. 112mins.
It is hard to begrudge a film as wellwritten and acted as The History Boys.Nicholas Hytner's screen adaptation of Alan Bennett'sacclaimed play is buoyed by some tremendous performances, one or two of whichlook very likely to be nominated for major awards. The writing is superb. Nonetheless,in cinematic terms, this is not an especially lithe nor imaginative reworkingof the original material, with little of the visual wit that characterisedBennett and Hytner's earlier screen collaboration, The Madness Of KingGeorge (1994).
But one guesses that audienceswon't be too bothered by some of its contrivances: after all, it seems petty toquibble in the face of Richard Griffiths' bravura turn as Hector, the Englishteacher. If Hytner set out to provide a platform forhis actors and to bring Bennett's play to a wider audience, then he hassucceeded brilliantly. Made on a lowish budgetbetween the end of the UK theatrical run and its transfer to Broadway, itpreserves on celluloid what is bound to be regarded in future years as avintage British stage production.
Snapped up for worldwidedistribution by 20th Century Fox, who will doubtless be giving it a big pushduring the awards season, The HistoryBoys has bypassed the autumn festival circuit, reportedly because the play'sBroadway run made the cast available to promote the feature.
In the UK, where it opens onOct 13 just after the Broadway run ends, and where Alan Bennett is considered anational treasure, it will be warmly received. The key question is whether itcan cross over and attract the younger mainstream cinemagoers that the upbeat marketingmaterials suggest it wishes to draw.
Fox Searchlight will releasethe film in the US in late November, where it should appeal to the same upscaleAmerican audiences who relished the work of other celebrated British stagedirectors turned film-makers, including Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty, Iris) andStephen Daldry (TheHours).
As the story begins, eightteens at Cutler's Grammar School in the north of England are preparing to sittheir Oxbridge examination. They're a mixed bunch, ranging from thegood-looking and insolent Dakin (Cooper) to thegruff, inarticulate Rudge (Tovey),whose main hope of acceptance to Oxford or Cambridge lies in his prowess atsport.
Alan Bennett has few peerswhen it comes to honing in on the nuances of British society. Here, intypically graceful and understated fashion, he explores hypocritical Britishattitudes not only toward education, but also class, sex (in particular,homosexuality) and ambition.
The History Boys draws a sharp distinction between Griffiths' Hector, an avuncular,sardonic and extremely rotund figure who looks as if he might have sprung fromthe pages of Charles Dickens; and the ultra-aggressive new teacher Irwin(Campbell Moore), who has been hired to push the boys through theirexamination.
Hector teaches for the gloryof it. He may be "pissing away his life" in a godforsaken" school, but hislessons are eccentric mini-adventures in which he genuinely tries to broadenthe pupils' understanding, whether or not it helps them pass exams. Irwin, bycontrast, is glib in the extreme.
With its brittle, wittydialogue and multi-layered characterisation, The History Boys is very different from the typical teen movie.What it captures supremely well is the constant shift in power between theteachers and their students. Ironically, the former are the most vulnerable.Stuck in jobs from which there is no obvious escape, they are harassed by apetty-minded headmaster (Merrison), whose onlyconcern is bolstering the reputation of the school by getting as many boys aspossible into Oxford and Cambridge.
As they realise, the boys"know everything", be it the sexual peccadillos ofthe teachers (for instance, Hector's habit ofstroking the boys' knees) or their frustration at their career prospects,Dayton and company hone in intuitively on every weakness. The boys may beprecocious but they are also more tolerant than the adults; they certainly don'tjudge Hector in the way that the headmaster does.
On one level, it is also a daringand potentially even controversial feature, portraying Hector - a teacher whodoesn't conceal his attraction to the pupils in his charge - in a sympatheticlight, and his attempts to lure the boys onto the back of his motorbike areshown as comic rather than sinister. The storytelling could have taken on aseedier, sadder undertow with another actor in the role. As it is, Griffithsdominates the film, and those who remember him with fondness as Uncle Monty in Withnail & I will find even more to cherishhere. His performance utterly galvanises what might otherwise have seemed anoverly cautious adaptation.
One of the strengths ofBritish cinema has always been its character actors. It is heartening to find afilm in which a stock type - the eccentric, blustering teacher - isn't justtreated as comic relief but is given real emotional depth.
Of the support, Frances DeLa Tour delivers a touching characterisation of Mrs Lintott,the ever-exasperated history teacher, while Clive Merrisonis enjoyable as the headmaster.
Such positives help overcomesome of the film's technical shortcomings. The recreation of northern Englandin the early 1980s is dour, drab and a little clumsy, while the continual useof pop music from the era risks grating. Certain devices - like the postscriptin which we learn what subsequently became of the protagonists - can't but feelstilted on screen.
Free Range Films
UK Film Council
2oth Century Fox (Fox Searchlight in the US)
Frances De La Tour
Stephen Campbell Moore