[7 December 2006]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“There is no such thing as general studies,” pronounces Hector (Richard Griffiths). “All knowledge is specific.” And so the affable general studies teacher lays out his dilemma, confined by expectations, living out a life he hadn’t anticipated when he was young. Sad but also resistant in his way, he’s the sort of prep school queen who tends not to be recognized as such in most nostalgic schoolboys movies.
Both repressed and obvious, Hector is remarkable in Griffiths’ beautiful performance, and yet awfully familiar as an object lesson. In The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s Tony award-winning play now made into a very stagey film, Hector is sad but also steely, surviving in a time (1983) and place (Cutler’s Grammar School in Sheffield, England) in which his “difference” (that is, his homosexuality) is hardly different at all.
His classroom walls are papered with cultural tidbits (a Gilda poster, a portrait of Orson Welles, quotations and poems) and his students appreciate his entertainments, indeed, his appreciation of them. Their class periods with Hector are comfortable, creative, and affectionate: he has them invent scenes in a brothel to practice French verbs, and perform dialogue from Now, Voyager and Brief Encounter. They preen and posture, love feeling special and adored. And yet the boys also know they don’t want to be Hector. He’s the very model for their potential failure, stuck at a school away in the relative boonies, reportedly living with his never seen, “unexpected wife,” knowing each day that his hopes were long ago dashed.
And yet Hector and his boys understand one another: each afternoon when classes end, he offers a ride home on the back of motorbike, and the students hem and haw amongst themselves until one agrees to accept the invite, knowing that his thigh will be touched. They get this, that Hector has so few pleasures and that his desires are so overwhelming and unnerving to himself that he will never go farther. They see him as harmless, and they go along, joking behind his back and tolerant in their ways. They share a sense of limits.
And then the terms change. The boys learn that they might be able to get into Oxford and Cambridge, meaning that their horizons are suddenly expanded: they’re bright and energetic, and at least one of them—smug and ruggedly pretty Dakin (Dominic Cooper)—is ruthless in his ambition. They mean to get out of Sheffield, and their headmaster (Clive Merrison) means for his school to be recognized for producing them. In order to ensure their excellence on entrance exams and in interviews, the headmaster brings in a new teacher, the even more repressed, but much younger and Cambridge-educated Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).
Assigned to give the students “polish and edge,” Irwin offers up a paradigm of glib strategizing. While he encourages them to question received wisdom, it is in the interest of performance: play devil’s advocate, he suggests, whether or not you believe in a position; show off your quick wit and your knowledge of “gobbits” (quotations). It’s a game, says Irwin: since Stalin is generally “agreed to be a monster, dissent!” Display your own general brilliance by citing bits and pieces of someone else’s, even if you feel no stake in it.
The boys respond to the new instruction differently and predictably, underscoring the play/film’s central tension. Though he’s currently shagging the headmaster’s secretary (mostly, it seems, to gather information and gossip, as well as a certain status), Dakin finds himself rather smitten by Irwin. Posner (Samuel Barnett)—who sings beautifully (and worships the trousers that cling to Dakin, focusing his gaze while performing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”) and describes himself as “small, Jewish and gay. I’m fucked!”—remains more or less loyal to Hector, fond of the meaningful “specifics.” For the most part, the boys appear a collection of token types: black Crowther (Samuel Anderson); Muslim Akhtar (Sacha Dhawan), white jock Rudge (Russell Tovey), overweight Timms (James Coden). While each offers the occasional observation to sum up a moment (the most profound being Rudge’s remark that history is “just one fucking thing after another”), they are also plainly the result of a one-from-every-food-group sort of casting.
Surveying the proceedings from the position designated “outside” by virtue of her gender, history teacher Mrs. Dorothy Lintott (the most excellent Frances de la Tour) seems surprised by the revelation that Hector has been fondling his boys, though it’s hard to guess why. She does voice the idea that such behavior might be harmful for the boys (“He handled the boys’ balls!”) and a sign of his own distress, while everyone else has either accepted it as par for a course, at least until it was spotted by yet another outsider (a female traffic monitor). Such articulation of Hector’s condition and desire (again, by women) makes it a crisis, for the school, if no one else.
Such schematic arrangement is of a piece with The History Boys’ other play-derived aspects: clever banter, three-act structure, meticulous blocking. During a mock-interview, Dorothy lays out the film’s simultaneous awareness and exploitation of its own limits. “Imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude,” she declares. “History is not such a frolic for women as it is for men… History is women following behind, with a bucket.”
And so the boys lay claim to “history,” understand it as theirs to make, have, and manage. This is their primary, pedestrian lesson in The History Boys, fettered by generic and cultural conventions. Dorothy points out that Irwin is teaching “the boys about history and the utter randomness of things.” He seems intent on seeing these as separate concepts.