The History Boys
2006Director: Nicholas Hytner
Cast: Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour
here is a series of lessons for everyone who wants to be a film aficionado, a.k.a. everyone who wants to tell other people whether their tastes are erudite or middlebrow. If one began to self-consciously cultivate a sophisticated palate around the year 2000, as I did, then one learned to praise Crouching Tiger: Hidden Dragon rather than Gladiator. Later, one moves on to Wong Kar-Wai, realizing that Ang Lee is a detestable crowd-pleaser (knowledge that will prove particularly handy when dismissing Brokeback Mountain for not being indie enough). One learns to detest sports movies, Michael Bay pictures, and any manifestation of the Wise and Benevolent Teacher cliché (see Dead Poets Society or Dangerous Minds).
I shall try not to write this review as a shrill rebuke to an imaginary foe, implicitly presenting myself as a freethinking messiah for the critical establishment. Yes, clichés are annoying, especially when used in movies about the meaning of life, most especially when the meaning of life derives from the emo literature of dead white men. The History Boys, based on the successful play by Alan Bennett, promotes impassioned poetry readings (sometimes, mind you, without a trace of irony), soliloquizes on the aforementioned meaning of life, and closes with the heartfelt advice, “Pass the parcel, boys. Take it, feel it, and pass it on.” Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed (was inspired by?) The History Boys, and I just can’t shake the guilt!
In a second-rate preparatory school, a batch of bright boys prepares for the most nerve-wracking competition an English lad could face: admission into the highly competitive universities of Oxford and Cambridge. As these young men enter the final time-crunch, their attention is divided between two professors with very different teaching styles. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) doles out pragmatic advice on distinguishing oneself; students exit his classroom with nifty, duplicitous techniques designed to impress. On the other hand, Hector (Richard Griffiths) encourages the boys to recite Noel Coward dialogue, to effeminately lisp French ditties, and to memorize mountains of useless verse—all impractical knowledge used solely to benefit the soul.
The boys’ dilemma (namely, shaping oneself into a product any admissions board would desire) may be excessively relevant to me, a student who completed the college application process less than a month ago. Still, The History Boys speaks to anyone pursuing higher education, enjoying pop culture, or trying to engage with the world in which we live (and the film preaches with gusto, I warn you: beware a fantasy sequence in which every character is resurrected to share what they’ve ultimately learned from life). The play recognizes how familiar (trite?) its moral is, rejoicing in the idea of many minds churning over the same thoughts again and again. Uniqueness pales in comparison to passion. I strongly suspect that, having elucidated the message of The History Boys, I have not encouraged you to trot to the library with a renewed interest in the history of humanity. Were it not to capture our imagination with powerful storytelling and interesting characters, the movie would be as meaningless as this review.
Will an audience be interested in these characters, even in a Wise and Benevolent Teacher who longs to inspire us to lead greater lives? In an interview with The Guardian, playwright Alan Bennett admitted to never having met such a man, and those more jaded/experienced than I may find the character banal. For my part, I found the man compelling. His moral ambiguity doesn’t reduce to the neatly-balanced “oh look, he’s both good and bad” dynamics of, say, Crash, but instead consists in the fractional glance toward his wristwatch while tutoring a promising but relatively uncharismatic student (not to mention other flaws, which I shall not reveal here, but instead hint only that they have to do with sexual power dynamics, which always spice up a script). The cast never becomes too virtuous, and the rat race of intellectualism threatens to drown even the most enlightened poetry-lover.
The History Boys is, first and foremost, a work of theater; the crisp and dense script is by far its strongest attribute. But the play makes an impressive transition to the screen with an unusually mobile camera, which creates, strengthens, and then abandons eye-lines, palpably drawing us into the spontaneous exchange of interesting ideas. So, is The History Boys good conversation? The over-earnest fag from drama club will probably enjoy it, and you won’t hear Jonathan Rosenbaum listing it among his favorites anytime soon. But for what it’s worth, the film made me feel less guilty about my inevitable choice to become an English major.
The History Boys is currently playing in wide release.