History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind. With the bucket. —Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), The History Boy
This low-budget British curio unimaginatively transposes the acclaimed 2004 stage production to the more realistic environs of an educational-setting captured for the screen. Despite the aesthetic verisimilitude, and the decision to shed an hour’s worth of the weightier, more stage-suited material in the transition, it is a film that only sporadically convinces and entertains.
Essentially concerning itself with its teachers’ battle for the hearts and minds of the students, The History Boys is set in a northern grammar school in a Britain of the early ‘80s. Post A-Levels, eight bright-as-buttons sixth-formers are coached for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams. Their Head-Teacher (Clive Merrison) labels them as “clever but crass”. New tutor Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) is brought in to ensure the boys stand out from the other prospective scholars by instilling in them a rebellious left-field approach to tackling the questions. Established teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths) adopts highly unusual methods in order to give the boys an education for life, not simply exam-success; whereas, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour) preaches “Facts. Facts. Facts.”
Detrimentally, it is only the more experienced members of the original theatre troupe, i.e., those who play the teaching staff, who adjust and shape their performances with ease. The elders of the cast know when to be bold and show-stopping, which reflects the inspirational potential of their profession, and when to rein in the histrionics and subtly emote for a medium which is unique in the scale on which it can capture nuance. de la Tour is marvellously wizened yet warm as Mrs. Lintott. Griffiths’ avuncular, idiosyncratic Hector is an emotionally battered ship in a tightly corked bottle. Best is Moore as Irwin, who delivers the most successful cinematic performance, with his taut face and screaming eyes; in close-up he holds the power to bring one to tears.
The titular history boys are less successful at adapting their stage performances to fit. On occasion projecting and over-enunciating as if they still need to hit the back row of a theatre, they often fail to deliver the intricacy of performance that the magnifying medium demands.
Samuel Barnett stands out amongst them as Posner, in a largely impressive translation. Saddled with a self-pitying role, which requires him to sing show tunes and struggle petulantly with his sexuality; he also has a porcelain-like fragility and nervousness. This is particularly evident in a wonderful two-hander, where Posner reads Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge to Hector and the vulnerability of each is revealed. At one point Hector reaches out expressively, to demonstrate the power of connecting with literature, and we see Posner react as if intends to take his hand. It is a sequence which brings out the emotions behind the words and is, as such, a rarity in the film.
The direction, dispiritingly, is as prosaic as the drab grammar school surroundings. The odd flourish and energetic, if clichéd, ‘80s soundtrack (New Order, The Smiths, The Clash) occasionally threaten to liven things up to the standard set by the superb, piquant, but jarringly out of context, script. However, at best, such energy merely jollies things along until the next odd, verbally incongruent moment. A montage sequence where the boys travel to Oxford and Cambridge resembles a naff tourist information film. Brick memorably demonstrated how unusual, archaic sounding (though in that instance often arcane) dialogue can emerge out of the mouths of babes; and how, when spoken in conjunction with a verve of enterprise and commitment of performance, it is quite possible to suspend one’s disbelief.
Paradoxically, despite the inadequacies of the transfer from stage to screen, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a youthful cast credited with such acuity and the brazen ability to challenge authority figures; for once with the knowledge to back up their arguments, whether it be on an academic or emotional matter. For instance, the hubristic Dakin exposes Irwin’s inherent hypocrisy when he says, “Reckless; impulsive; immoral. How come there’s such a difference between the way you teach and the way you live?”
An excellent sequence where the boys are mock-interviewed by a panel comprising of the three teachers contains both an explosive diatribe from the exasperated Mrs. Lintott, and the film’s most conventionally humorous line. Asked by Mrs. Lintott what history means to him, Rudge grudgingly replies, “It’s just one fucking thing after another”.
It is incredibly disappointing that such an ambitious project from a beloved source largely falls so flat. It may be a misguided venture on the whole but there are a handful of moments to treasure.
The minimal extras consist of a couple of short documentaries, one filmed by the boys themselves whilst on tour and another explaining the process of adapting a stage-play for the screen. Both benefit from the extraordinary cast and crew dynamic and it is certainly heartening to witness the camaraderie and pleasure in the film-making process. Also included is an excellent commentary by the director Nicholas Hytner and screenwriter Alan Bennett. It’s always a pleasure to hear Bennett (who is something of a British institution) wax lyrical in his soothing Yorkshire tones, and both offer splendid insight into the story, characters, and making of the film.