'History' earns a high grade

Tony Award-winning play 'The History Boys' gets a literate treatment on screen.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning play "The History Boys" has been transferred almost intact to the big screen, and its success serves as a potent reminder that terms like "cinematic" and "theatrical" are not always mutually exclusive.

It's such a lift to hear great dialogue in the movies issued from stage-trained actors who know how to deliver a line. If the literacy of "The History Boys" is deemed uncinematic, then give me uncinema anytime.

Director Nicholas Hytner first staged the play at London's National Theater and then, with the same 12-member cast, moved it to Broadway. The cast survives in the movie version, which no doubt accounts for the lived-in cohesiveness of the ensemble. To Hytner's credit, the actors appear to be performing for the first time, instead of the thousandth.

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Set in the 1980s among final-year students and their teachers at a Sheffield high school, "The History Boys" is a spirited elegy for a way of educating – a way of living one's life – that is passing away. Hector (Richard Griffiths, in a great performance) is the old-guard general studies instructor who believes that knowledge is something to be savored.

His counterpart is Tom Irwin(Stephen Campbell Moore), a teacher brought into the school by its rabidly grades-conscious headmaster (Clive Merrison) to prepare its best students for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams. Unlike the jowly, porcine Hector, the straight-arrow Irwin is a realist: He wises the boys up to the tricks of scoring high and regards knowledge as goblets of facts.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Hector, although married, has homosexual longings for his students that get him into serious trouble. The students are aware of his proclivities, but make light of them. They see Hector as a great eccentric and, if they're honest with themselves, a great teacher.

In this movie, teaching is a gateway to the soul. There is a scene between Hector and Posner (Samuel Barnett), one of his brightest pupils, where they discuss a Thomas Hardy poem and their loneliness comes out, and it is almost unbearably affecting. As badly as these students want to get into the great universities, they know it is Hector's approach to learning, and not Irwin's, that will stay with them.

Bennett captures the racy, joshing, embattled atmosphere inside a British boarding school better than anybody has done since Terence Rattigan's "The Browning Version."

Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the class rake who is fawned over by Posner, sees an opportunity to press a dalliance with Irwin as a way of currying favor. Bennett presents this homosexual material matter-of-factly, as just another condition of these people's lives. What he is passionately interested in, in a larger sense, is the way they appear to be one thing and act another. The great tragicomic conceit of "The History Boys" is that these people who are fortified with knowledge have so little knowledge of themselves. Grade: A–

Rated R for language and sexual content.

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