Stephen Campbell Moore as Irwin
Richard Griffiths as Hector
Frances de la Tour as Mrs. Lintott
Clive Merrison as The Headmaster
Dominic Cooper as Dakin
Samuel Barnett as Posner
Samuel Anderson as Crowther
James Corden as Timms
Andrew Knott as Lockwood
Russell Tovey as Rudge
Jamie Parker as Scripps
Sacha Dhawan as Akhtar
Penelope Wilton as Mrs. Bibby
Adrian Scarborough as Wilkes
Georgia Taylor as Fiona
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Reuniting the cast and director from the stage production, “The History Boy” captures the magic with an almost seamless transition to the screen and only a few lulls that reveal the film’s stage roots.
At an elite grammar school in Sheffield, a group of feisty students prepare for their university entrance examinations, but when the headmaster brings in a young specialist (Stephen Campbell Moore), their new teacher finds that he may have more than he bargained for. Meanwhile, their previous teachers, a feminist historian (Frances de la Tour) and a flamboyant arts teacher (Richard Griffiths), wonder if they should be fearing for their jobs with the coming of this new teacher with new ideas.
Turning a stage play or musical into an entertaining movie that stands on its own is often an exceedingly difficult task. Despite the benefits of giving those who missed or couldn’t afford to see the story as a play, film and stage tend to be mutually exclusive with very few plays working well in both platforms. With that in mind, the trip of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” from stage to film was quicker than most plays, which may be why that transition seems to have gone smoother than other recent attempts.
The movie follows the same plot of eight grammar school students studying to get into the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge Universities including the smart-mouthed ladies’ man Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the class clown Timms (James Corden), and Posner (Stephen Barnett), a shy young Jewish boy who has a crush on the older Dakin. Getting into “Oxbridge” is a serious prospect for their headmaster (Clive Merrison), who hires Mr. Irwin (Stephen Moore), a former Oxford ace, to help train the boys to pass the test, cutting into their time spent with the school’s arts and culture teacher Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths), who the boys love to torment. When Hector is caught groping one of the boys while giving him a ride home on his motorbike–an induction rite that all the boys have grown accustomed to–it gives the headmaster his long-awaited excuse to send the flamboyant older man to an early retirement, much to the boys’ dismay.
The message that “teachers are generally good things” is a bit overused in movies like “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Poets Society.” Set during the ’80s, when a story like this is more likely to have occurred, “History Boys” has a decidedly English bent along with a certain air of pretentiousness in the way the students spout “gobets” from literature and poetry to argue their points. Being based on a play, it’s a very talky film, relying heavily on the rapport and timing of its cast, which is probably why Nicholas Hytner, director of the play’s original National Theatre production, decided to capture the magic of that talented cast on film, rather than following the practice of bringing in better-known “ringers” to spice up a film adaptation. Wisely, he decided to film Bennett’s play shortly after the British run and before its Broadway debut, where Bennett’s script was apt to be “de-anglicized.” Because of this, the premise retains elements that may seem alien for those unfamiliar with British academics, though it quickly moves past that to focus on the characters.
For the most part, the students are too smart for their own good, constantly talking back to their teachers and putting them on the spot. Their deadpan banter does get tiring after a while, as they tend to deliver their lines like actors in a play rather than real students, but things turn a bit more serious after Hector’s indiscretion is discovered, and that’s where Alan Bennett’s script and the cast start to shine, as each character gets a moment to reflect on the importance of their well-balanced education.
The film’s most interesting relationship is that of Dakin and Irwin and how it evolves over the course of the movie. Dominic Cooper is clearly a star in the making as he uses his wiles to try to get into the good graces of the new teacher, and the often befuddled Moore, great in Stephen Fry’s “Bright Young Things” a few years ago, comes across a bit like a younger Jonathan Pryce. Richard Griffiths and Frances de La Tour are priceless as they deliver memorable performances as the school’s old guard, who are worried about losing their positions on staff. Griffiths gets even more laughs by wearing just the right outfit to enhance his naturally robust pear-shaped body, but there’s also a sadness to his character, because he doesn’t really get the respect he deserves for what he brings to the boys’ lives. Clive Merrison is very funny as the snooty headmaster, a fairly stereotypical character but offering some of the best comic relief in the way he feigns outrage at Hector’s antics, while gushing over Irwin’s unconventional techniques.
It’s just as much fun to watch the boys learn valuable life lessons while bopping your head to cleverly selected tunes by the likes of The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, which not only greatly enhances the ’80s setting but also alleviates the film’s potentially snooty tone. All in all, it’s a well-written and acted ensemble piece, well worthy of adaptation, and it’s satisfying enough that you can forgive Bennett when he resorts to a bit of stagewriting 101 with its “where are they now?” ending.
The Bottom Line:
There may have already been way too many academic dramas over the years, but the uniquely humorous tone of “The History Boys” is a worthy addition, giving theatre lovers the perfect opportunity to see an award-winning production they may have missed on Broadway, captured with all of the magic its wonderful cast brought to Alan Bennett’s stirring tale.