Screen adaptation of celebrated stageplay could garner a nod or two at awards time

The History Boys

on November 21, 2006 by Ray Greene
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It's rare that a movie succeeds almost purely on the basis of non-cinematic elements, but The History Boys is such a film. A highly theatrical drama of ideas set in a British boys' school and based on a multi-award-winning stageplay, Boys examines what might be called the Liberal Arts conundrum, asking whether knowledge is something to be sought for its own sake or as a means to professional advancement.

The film's central conflict is between two teachers, representing opposing educational ideas. Richard Griffiths is the aging and immensely overweight Hector, an eccentric and impassioned educator who fills his student's heads with fragments of poetry, vaudeville ballads, word-perfect recitations of ancient Hollywood movie scenes and gauzy baubles of historical fact meant to adorn their young minds with beauty and wonder rather than serve useful, real-world purposes. When Hector's efforts help yield a bumper crop of bright young candidates for “Oxbridge” -- British slang for Oxford and Cambridge, the two greatest schools in the United Kingdom -- the more pragmatic Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) is brought in to essentially teach Hector's boys how to beat the entrance test. His method is to train “the boys” to twist and manipulate their entrance essays to be provocative rather than truthful, using Hector's “gobbets” of information to season false arguments meant to simulate original thought.

This is heady, abstract stuff given flesh and substance by veteran dramatist Alan Bennett's witty and muscular way with dialogue, which is unapologetically theatrical in the way Oscar Wilde's or George Bernard Shaw's writing is. None of the conversations in The History Boys are pitched to anything like the normal rhythms of human speech -- Bennett's spoken prose is so crafted and writerly it almost sounds like it ought to be recited in iambic pentameter, or perhaps sung. But, because of the film's pervasive dialectical argument about knowledge itself, Bennett's little arias of banter and cleverness seem not only appropriate but deeply expressive, as if the characters were embodiments of the heightened scholasticism The History Boys both grieves for and defends.

It helps that the stage version's off-center production design, Brechtian projection screens and delirious narrative structure have been replaced by linear plotting and real locations, although director Nicholas Hytner (who also directed the stageplay) can be faulted for his seeming disinterest in cinematography this time out. Grounding The History Boys in a mundane British public school setting helps anchor Bennett's highly stylized writing, though the film's unlovely visual style -- bafflingly lensed by director of photography Andrew Dunne, who did sumptuous work for Hytner and Bennett on The Madness of King George -- seems like a blown opportunity to lend thematic substance to Bennett's verbiage.

The acting is a mixed but mostly accomplished bag, with Griffiths, Moore and fellow teacher Frances de la Tour effectively scaling back their stage performances for the more intimate demands of the screen. The appropriateness of some tacked-on homosexual content is as debatable here as it was in the stage production, especially when Bennett seems to argue that romantic love for the students can be an essential component of good teaching, a slippery slope of an argument if ever there was one. A supposed 1980s setting is invisible in The History Boys ' art direction, though the odd piece of old-school techno-pop and new wave music finds its way onto the film's soundtrack as a welcome relief from composer George Fenton's relentlessly awful score. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore and Frances de la Tour
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Screenwriter: Alan Bennett
Producers: Kevin Loader, Nicholas Hytner and Damian Jones
Genre: Dramatic comedy
Rating: R for language and sexual content
Running time: 109 min.
Release date: November 21, 2006

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