The History Boys (2006)

It’s now December (I expect you’ve noticed), which means 2010 is almost at an end. Once again, I find myself with a number of unposted reviews. Unlike last year, however, the majority of them are actually written. To help reduce the number leftover to post in 2011, I’m going to be a little more intensive than usual and post one a day for at least the next week (ish).

Just in case you were interested.

2010 #94
Nicholas Hytner | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

The History BoysNicholas Hytner’s film of Alan Bennett’s play, about a group of unlikely ’80s grammar school boys trying out for Oxbridge, sticks with a Bennett screenplay and the original West End/Broadway cast. However, it succeeds in not being very stagey — to the credit of Bennett’s screen adaptation and Hytner’s direction, I should imagine.

All of the cast are very good. Some roles are rather small — eight boys is, perhaps, too many; though Russell Tovey, for instance, still manages to stand out with his subplot. Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett get the biggest parts among the boys and do well with them, the latter justly rewarded with a variety of Supporting Actor nominations. Richard Griffiths hits just the right note as Hector, the homosexual/paedophiliac old teacher, balancing his daftness, intelligence and seedier side with skill.

The History Boys isn’t really about what it’s about — the boys applying for Oxbridge is shoved into a corner almost as soon as it’s introduced — but is instead about their learning, and their experience gained while (and from) learning, and a bit about growing up and discovering oneself too. Many films “aren’t about what they’re about”, but this one is strikingly so: aside from the opening where it’s established, and a couple of brief scenes near the end showing exams, interviews and results, the quest to get into Oxbridge is only afforded fleeting mentions in and around observing the content of the boys’ lessons. For all this worthy content, it must also be noted that it’s often very funny.

I said it wasn’t stagey. That’s not entirely true: the exception is the finale, which in both execution and dialogue feels incredibly Theatrical. But it’s a nice idea — much better than a half dozen “what happened next” screens of text — and I wouldn’t want to lose something so effective. It also succinctly reminds us that, though this story is over, lives go on.

Some may find the future outcome Bennett affords some of his characters troubling, however: the tone with which they’re delivered implies it all turned out OK; the content suggests we shouldn’t be so accepting. Such a moral conundrum (if it can in fact be considered one) only supports the film’s more realistic tone and themes.

4 out of 5

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