The History Boys Review

Alan Bennett is one of the two or three finest playwrights currently working in Britain and The History Boys is one of his best works. A finely drawn, outrageously funny study of sexual mores, hypocrisy and the nature of teaching, it delivers as many laughs to the minute as any other comedy I’ve seen in the past decade and suddenly, just when you least expect it, sneaks in and breaks your heart. However, if you haven’t seen the play then all this might not be immediately apparent from the film which goes weirdly wrong despite very nearly going miraculously right.

Spoilers Ahead

The plot is very simple, acting merely as the setting for several intellectual debates. We are at Cutler’s Grammar School, a boys-only establishment, in the Sheffield of 1983 – a setting chosen because the ‘Scholarship Term’ still existed and, possibly, because the music was so bloody brilliant. A group of eighteen year olds, having just triumphed in their A-Levels, returns to school to take the Oxbridge scholarship exam under the tutelage of their History teacher Mrs Lintott (De La Tour) and English master Hector (Griffiths). But the Headmaster (Merrison) is convinced that they will only pull off the ultimate prize for him if they have extra teaching from Irwin (Campbell-Moore), a fresh-faced academic. But Hector and Irwin have very different ideas of teaching, ones which have an extraordinary effect on their pupils. Matters come to a head when Hector’s one little foible – a liking for feeling up the boys on the back of his motorcycle – is discovered by the Headmaster’s wife.

It’s the debate between different kinds of education which gives the film its backbone. On the one hand there is Hector who believes that all knowledge is valuable, whether or not it has any useful purpose. He loads up the boys with poetry, art, quotations from literature and trivial crap from his own childhood – Gracie Fields, George Formby, the detritus of a 1930s English boyhood. On the other we have Irwin who believes that education is designed to be used to advance oneself and as part of a method by which one ‘cheats’ ones way into university. It’s not really cheating of course, just a way of using journalistic techniques to make one’s essays interesting, one which I myself used to use on a regular basis. If the question asks about the horrors of the Inquisition, one would write about how Torquemada was a fine, upstanding citizen and rather misunderstood, possibly because his mother didn’t love him enough. Irwin says, “What’s truth got to do with it? What’s truth got to do with anything?” and that’s the point. Use anything, everything to get what you want. Irwin regards this as realistic; Hector sees it as obscene. Then in the middle, we’ve got Mrs Lintott for whom facts are everything – but she gets sidelined a bit and would probably be even more marginal were it not for the brilliant Frances De La Tour. As for the headmaster, he’s an amusing but forgettable cipher.

The problem is that while the play had a lot of time to present this, the film has to telescope it into two hours along with some opening-out. A lot of good lines are missed but, more damagingly, so are some confrontation scenes which elucidate the central debate. Consequently, what is complex and even quite subtle in the original comes to seem schematic when put on screen. The sadness of Irwin’s character doesn’t come across nearly so well, nor do the ‘secondary’ boys seem as well distinguished as they were on stage. One’s interest is taken up by Dakin, Rudge, Posner and Scripps and the rest sort of fade away. Yet the screen coarsens the characters and, unfortunately, makes it distressingly clear that the actors are all well into their twenties. Dakin, in particular, seems a lot more unpleasant than he should be; he’s meant to be calculating but the film makes him seem positively malicious.

Matters aren’t exactly helped by the fact that the second debate in the film is somewhat fudged; the question of how ‘close’ teachers should get to their pupils. It’s admirable for a serious work to tackle such questions but, as in the play, Bennett creates a convenient get-out for himself. Hector’s little fumblings with his pupils are totally defused by the fact that all of them are obviously over eighteen years of age and, while reluctant, remarkably indulgent. He’s just a sad old man with a harmless fetish for teenage boys who are of legal age. By making Hector completely unthreatening, the cards are immediately stacked in his favour and one feels throughout that he is the character we are meant to warm to. But Hector is also a fool and a hypocrite – he claims to care about the boys he teaches while quite consciously denying them the kind of education which might fulfil them – and he is, at least in one sense, dangerous. His belief that all you need is life is poetry, literature, art, music, movies and suchlike is all very well but what happens to the boys who drink all of this in and then suddenly find that it’s not enough? That life doesn’t match up to the poetic dream? In the play, this was dealt with brilliantly by having Posner – the boy who is most inspired by Hector - turn into a broken wreck, living on his own in a cottage, having “long since stopped asking himself where it all went wrong”. In the film, the matter is completely blurred by changing the ending and having Posner turn into a teacher, another Hector, “unhappy but not unhappy about it”. And so, in one stroke, the line of criticism directed at Hector is neutralised.

In contrast, the relationship between Dakin and Irwin is rather more carefully delineated. Irwin’s confused, hesitant homosexuality is nicely contrasted with Dakin’s aggressively bi-curious nature and Bennett walks a fine line between Dakin as sexual provocateur and Irwin as passive-aggressive seducer. Whether it’s entirely convincing that Dakin’s curiosity would be so upfront is a moot point but it’s well written and the final scene between them – when Dakin points out that “me sucking you off” is a gerund – is beautifully underplayed.

Indeed, if there’s one thing that makes the film eminently worth seeing, even as a failure, it’s the performances. Richard Griffiths, now so big that he occupies any part of the screen on which he happens to appear, gives a monumental showpiece as Hector and turns an incredibly unappealing character into a genuinely sympathetic figure which some kind of tragic stature. Frances De La Tour is even better. It’s a shame she’s deprived of her best line from the play - “Our headmaster is a twat. An impermissible word these days I know but the only one suitable. And to travel down the same proscribed path, a condescending cunt”. To hear Ms. De La Tour drawl the word “cunt” is one of the great pleasures of this life. This is, incidentally, a fine example of Alan Bennett’s determination to shock his blue-haired brigade fan-club out of their upholstery but using swear words for very childish but, to be fair, rather funny shock effects. Clive Merrison as the headmaster has a ball with lines like “Fuck the Renaissance!” and there’s a very broad but nice bit from Adrian Scarborough as an evangelical PE teacher – “You’re not just letting yourself down, you’re letting Jesus down!”

The boys are also splendid, demonstrating a kind of easy group playing that rarely comes except from many months in the theatre. It’s a shame that the film sidelines some of them – James Corden, the most experienced actor among them and a natural clown, seems a little muted somehow – but Samuel Barnett as Posner and Dominic Cooper as Dakin are little short of brilliant. Barnett has the easy task, in a sense, since to some extent he plays a projection of Bennett at the age of 18, but he does it with such sensitivity that he’s quite heartbreaking. Dakin is a more difficult part but Dominic Cooper makes him remarkably charming as well as irritating. In the other ‘Bennett’ role, the religious and self-denying Scripps, Jamie Parker is shorn of much of the narration he delivered in the play but he’s got a lovely way with a good line.

Needless to say, and as you would expect from this source, the good lines are abundant – “I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual and I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked!” So abundant in fact that one suspects at times that Nicholas Hytner has simply parked his camera in a convenient spot, occasionally shifted it about a bit, and relied on the text to make the points for him. Despite some tentative opening-out, it remains very much a filmed play. To his credit, Hytner never gets in the way of the actors and one exterior scene – a visit to Fountains Abbey (down the road from where I live) – he captures a lovely elegiac sense of sadness. If you haven’t seen the play, this may well strike you as a delightful film packed with good one-liners and entertaining situations – a French lesson which turns into a visit to a brothel is particularly good value. But if you have, then you may regret the ways in which the text has been broadened and changed, making this an enjoyable but unsatisfactory memento of a marvellous theatrical experience.

The Disc

Fox’s DVD of The History Boys is very pleasing, offering a good transfer and some interesting extra features. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is good throughout with plenty of detail, a sharp appearance and a nice palate of colours. It’s occasionally a little dark for my tastes but that’s a minor problem. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is eminently clear although this type of film doesn’t really stretch the surround channels, which are mostly used for the music track and some ambient effects. Dialogue is usually spatially placed, often to nice effect in the duologues and classroom scenes. There is also an audio description track which is an excellent idea and one which seems to be getting more common.

The extras are limited to two featurettes and a commentary. Both the featurettes are brief but they are interesting. The first, running 14 minutes, deals with the world tour of the play, in the form of a video diary, while the second, lasting about 12 minutes, is a collection of interviews from the set. But the real jewel is the commentary track by Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett. Both men are on good form but Bennett is positively garrulous with lots of funny stories and acute observations. I haven’t enjoyed a commentary track as much as this for ages, even though their explanations for changing the ending don’t convince for one minute.

The film is subtitled but the extra features are not.

No-one does England better than Alan Bennett when he’s on form and there are lovely observations about the national character here. He also captures a potent sense of nostalgia for the minutiae of schooldays. The film is worth seeing in the sense that everything that Bennett touches is worth seeing but if you’ve seen the play then it is almost bound to disappoint you. If you haven’t then you will almost certainly have a good time.

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