After a successful stage run, Alan Bennett's hit play The History Boys was released as a film in 2006, featuring the original cast. I've never seen the play, so I can't comment on how faithful or bastardized the stage-to-screen transition was. All I can say is, that in its film form, The History Boys is a brilliant twist on the oft-visited "school story".
Set in 1983 at a boys' grammar school in Sheffield, the film follows eight precocious and boisterous boys as the prepare for their Oxbridge exams. The boys are helped along (to varying degrees) by their Basil Fawlty-like headmaster, Felix (Clive Merrison), wry history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), and free-flowing general studies teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths). In order to bring some "edge" to the boys' education, Felix enlists the help of the young Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).
If only all secondary education was like at Cutlers' Grammar School, maybe high school would actually mould young minds or whatever it's supposed to do, instead of breeding hordes of traumatized teenagers, slackers and stoners. At Cutlers', students are encouraged to think for themselves and enjoy learning - what a novel concept! Hector's general studies class is like a dream - he cultivates an appreciation for art and culture with an eye on social and historical context. But Hector is wary of producing pretentious ponces, and so he makes sure to inject each lesson with a hefty serving of silliness. Hence the boys interrupting lessons by spontaneously bursting into song or acting out scenes from Brief Encounter.
Hector is a marvelous creation - not only is he a thrillingly unorthodox teacher, a shameless fop, and overall cheeky bugger, he's a blatant pedophile. After every class, Hector offers one of the boys a ride home on his scooter, and takes the opportunity to fondle their genitals. The gag is, all the boys know about it, and they treat it as a twisted kind of rite of passage. They know Hector will stop if they protest, and they've devised various strategies to avoid the "genital massage". Just to push things into the stratosphere of "pure gold" comedy, the only boy who actually is eager to be groped, shy, gay Posner (Samuel Barnett), is the only one Hector never takes for a ride. Hector's pedophilic tendencies aren't villainized by the group, and instead they treat him as an eccentric but ultimately harmless uncle. They smirk, they shake their heads knowingly, but no one feels the need to bring out pitchforks and torches...no one on the inside does, anyways. Hector should be a monstrous figure - he's taking advantage of boys, after all - but instead he's one of the most sympathetic characters in the film.
Hector's pederasty is part of the film's wider exploration of the student-teacher relationship. "The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act," Hector says to Felix when questioned about his behaviour. A statement that would never hold up when up against the judgmental glare of society, but one that rings all too true for anyone who's found themselves smitten with an inspirational teacher. That's where Irwin, the handsome young history teacher who can easily pass as a student, comes in.
Initially the boys don't take him quite seriously, but Irwin quickly establishes himself. His harsh criticisms of ths boys' essays and constant challenges to question "truth" and find unique angles on history reveal a dynamic, passionate teacher who invigorates the boys' quests to enter Oxbridge glory. Irwin's structured, info-packed lessons contrast sharply to Hector's abstract and often unfocused teaching style, making him the perfect foil. The boys realize that Irwin is giving them tools to help them pass the exam, while Hector is giving them...what, exactly? The value of Hector's lessons aren't immediately quantifiable, and bring to light important questions about the meaning and purpose of education. All too often, school is reduced to strategies on how to pass a series of exams, and The History Boys exposes this unfortunate degradation of the educational system. There's so much more to learning, and it's Hector's lessons that hints at the enriching possibilities of education. At one point, Hector decodes the significance of a line in a Thomas Hardy poem for Posner. It's a quiet, seemingly innocuous scene, but possibly my favourite of the film - I was riveted by Hector's heartbreaking poetic sensitivity, with all the wistful subtext spilling over everywhere, I was bowled over.
Irwin is no hack, either, and his insistence on constant critical thinking proves a valuable lesson for the boys, who have had plenty of exposure to a broad liberal education, but haven't stopped to think about what they're memorizing so dutifully. Irwin realizes that Hector's classes have given the boys an infinite supply of literary, lyrical, and filmic quotations, or "gobbits" and encourages them to strategically insert them into their history essays - much to Hector's chagrin. "That's journalism," he says. Yet despite the clash between Irwin and Hector's teaching styles, they have much more in common than is initially apparent.
In part, they have the boys. The unofficial leader of the boys is Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the good-looking charmer of the lot. Dakin is well aware that Posner harbours a painful crush on him but is neither offended or excited by the prospect - "it's boring," he complains. Even Dakin's conquest of the headmaster's secretary Fiona doesn't seem to overly excite him. Dakin is complacent about everything until Irwin comes along. Dakin finds himself eager to please Irwin - a foreign concept for a boy who can please the off pants just about anyone by flashing a charismatic grin.
The scenes between Irwin and Dakin provide some of the most delicious screen tension in my recent memory. And I'll take this opportunity to say that Stephen Campbell Moore is absolutely perfect as Irwin - the fiery passion for his subject juxtaposed with the painful restraint and quiet loneliness in his personal life - kills me. Okay, gushing moment over.
One of the joys of the script is the constant literary and historical references peppered in the dialogue. At times, the film's stage roots become obvious, but director Nicholas Hytner rolls with it, allowing the camera to swing back and forth as the impossibly witty boys trade bon mots with dizzying speed. The History Boys recently had a stage run here in Vancouver, and I'm sad I missed it, because if the original play is anywhere near as exhilarating as the film, it's well worth seeing. The film takes many of the explosive underlying issues of traditional school stories - pedophilia, homosexuality, religion, race, institutionalized hypocrisy - and brings them to the surface, tossing them about like so many jokes instead of the complex issues we normally see them as. But it's set in a nostalgic past - surely a fantasy, because such relaxed attitudes couldn't have existed in the 80's, since they don't even exist today. Fantasy or not, by stripping away the various toxic Issues with a capital "I", The History Boys reveals the scintillating, heartbreaking, romantic appeal of the passionate exchange of knowledge. Brilliant.
. m u s i c .: Guy Garvey's show on 6music...again