In 2004 Alan Bennett's play The History Boys was a huge success at the National Theatre on London's South Bank. Its run was extended to meet audience demand and it toured with similar popularity in New York and Sydney, receiving numerous awards. This film crystallizes those immaculate performances, preserving them on celluloid for future generations, who would never be able to see the same cast performing the play. Already the boys were becoming young men. This film came before it was too late. It's so rare that the entire cast and the director (Nicholas Hytner) are able to carry on over into the film adaptation of a play.
Set in a Yorkshire grammar school in the early 1980s, The History Boys is about a class of exceptionally smart boys who return to school for one final term after their A-Levels to prepare for Oxbridge entrance exams. The school does not have a tradition of sending candidates to these two most prestigious universities, so the headmaster (Clive Merrison) hires a young teacher called Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to tutor the boys and teach them how to stand out. Irwin's journalistic slant on History, turning it upside down, taking the controversial angle, is at odds with the teaching philosophy of Hector, their beloved English teacher (Richard Griffiths), who fills their heads with poetry and useless knowledge, not to pass exams, but for the sake of it. Their History teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) has taught them hard facts and taught them well, but Irwin finds their essays correct but boring. Gradually the boys learn Irwin's method of doing the unexpected thing, although they also begin to understand the value of what Hector has taught them.
The strength of the play was its characterization, which is happily carried over on to film. When Bennett was writing the play, he had no characters for the boys in mind. He just wrote "Boy" in the speech heading. It was in rehearsal for the National Theatre production that the company discovered who said what. Even sitting at the back of the theatre, when the actors' faces were out of focus, their characters emerged in sharp detail. Only Rudge could define history as "just one fucking thing after another". Only Posner could have a crush on Dakin. Only Timms could incur the fond wrath of Hector, be hit over the head and called a "rancid little turd". It was a relief (but no surprise) to find these characters had only grown stronger on film.
The plot and dialogue are effectively the same and the strong writing of Bennett translates superbly across media. It's still a wordy film, but it never feels like a recorded play. Even though I knew it was coming, I still couldn't help welling up when Hector and Posner discuss Hardy's poem "Drummer Hodge" in a private one-on-one tutorial, so poignant are their softly spoken words, flirting around the edges of a confessional.
Nugget: a film of joy. Full of the wonder of a type of teaching no longer possible in our curriculum incubus schools. An inspiration to teachers and to anyone who ever had a teacher as wonderful as Hector. I did. His name was Mr Williams (PSW) of Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, who always read "in [his] own inimitable style".
This review was also posted on Blogcritics.