The Reeler


November 21, 2006

The History Boys

Insightful, poignant stage adaptation patiently unfolds into one of year's best films

Looking back at his British public school education in 1947, George Orwell did not think kindly of the process. "Over a period of two or three years," he wrote in his essay "Such, Such Were The Joys," "the scholarship boys were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas. … Your job was to learn exactly those things that would give an examiner the impression that you knew more than you did know, and as far as possible to avoid burdening your brain with anything else."

Orwell's photo glowers in the background of the classrooms of The History Boys, Alan Bennett's play-turned-film, a reminder that grammar school preparation for university entrance exams remained freakishly unchanged throughout much of the 20th century. (At least that's the view from here; John Sutherland disagrees in The Guardian.) The History Boys is stubbornly British, and it helps to be acquainted with some of the odder aspects of UK culture (the unstoppable Carry On franchise, for example) in addition to the snobbery ever present in the public schools. At its heart, however, is an argument over educational values that transcends national boundaries.

1983: At an all-boys grammar school in Yorkshire, a promising class has received the best A-level history results of any class yet. (All you need to know is that the A-levels are the final level of tests that can be taken in high school, and promising marks on them can be used for either real-world jobs or university applications.) The ambitious headmaster (Clive Merrison), whose frequents attempts at refinement leave him looking worse than his lower-class roots already make him in the eyes of the boys, wants to make sure that his charges will pass their Oxbridge exams (the grueling university entrance exams that were shortly thereafter abolished), so he brings in contract teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to give the boys some "polish."

Irwin promptly sets about upending conventional notions about how to excel on the essay questions; their responses, he tells the boys, are diligent, well-argued, historically accurate and terminally dull. If everyone writes against Stalin, their task is to find his redeeming trait and bring it out. Such cleverness grates against the school's other leading history teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths, a sort of curly-haired, de-fanged Charles Laughton), an old-fashioned humanist who encourages reading for its own sake and ignores its applicability. "Knowledge," he protests, "is general, not specific, and has nothing to do with usefulness." The boys side decidedly with Irwin, whose advice seems far more useful for their upcoming exams, but the film dwells on the ambiguity of whose influence will be longer-lasting.

With its original cast and director in place, The History Boys is a happy marriage of the kind of long-rehearsed charisma that can only come from long rehearsals and the toned-down performances required when translating from stage to screen. Nicholas Hytner's direction is generally thoughtful and serviceable, but his greatest feat is making sure the performances are scaled for film: This is not a film to be seen for its technical innovations, but for the depth and intelligence of its ideas and the perfect execution of its cast. The debate over what really constitutes education is scintillating, and the classroom discussions aren't dumbed-down for audiences; few films in recent memory have stopped for a three-minute poetry dissection (Thomas Hardy's "Drummer Hodge,"), and this one puts the cursory literacy class given to Cameron Diaz in In Her Shoes look as shallow as it is.

Beneath the banter of the boys and the educational problems is the latent homosexuality always infamously present in British public school education. (If you've seen Nick Broomfield's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, you'll remember when a curious American asks Broomfield if they even have homosexuals in the UK, and he shamefacedly responds "I went to a British public school." No more needs to be said.) With all the jokiness, it's hard for the sexually naïve boys ("Most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet," one complains) to sort out where their predilections lean, and their teachers are just as confused and frustrated. If The History Boys ends up as a sort of affirmation of sexual tolerance, it's partially because Hector represents the ancient Greek ideal of education as a sort of erotic transmission from man to boy.

Though Fox Searchlight is foolishly marketing The History Boys as some kind of Dead Emperors Club Opus mash-up of Inspirational Teacher films, it's really an intoxicating flash of ideas that this review can only skim the surface of -- the kind rarely seen on film for fear of being "too clever." Cleverness is for the art houses, where challenging ideas are deemed the property of formally challenging films; hence, as The History Boys is hardly a pure cinematic triumph, it'll lose the sympathy of hard-ass formalists. However, the deftness with which it straddles the pathos underlying those who act perpetually smart-ass lest they be accused of vulnerability makes it one of the year's most purely entertaining films; its last-second curveball ending makes it among the most poignant as well.

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Comments (2)

An excellent review of the even more excellent "History Boys".

But you've got a bit confused concerning the kind of school it's about.

In the UK, the title public school is used by very venerable and well-endowed private schools. Their reputation for incubating homosexuality is largely derived from the fact that most of them are also boarding schools. George Orwell went to the most celebrated of thse schools (Eton) and prior to that to another, more junior, private boading school, described with all due horror in "Such Were the Joys".

By contrast, the eight clever "History Boys" go to a Grammar School, a selective, public (in the sensible, literal American sense of the word)school and they're not boarders. So the theme of gay love and lust isn't reducible to the cultural peculiarities of a sequestered, social elite.

These are a bunch of working and lower middle class meritocrats in the making, and (back in the 80s) they would have needed to be twice as clever and three times as determined as the public (in the English sense) school crowd, in order to get to Oxford or Cambridge. When Allan Bennet went through this process in the 1950s, it would have been far harder still.

I'm not just making this point out of pedantry. I think it's important to an understanding of the film. These eight guys are going somewhere against the odds. Their success means a great deal to the school and to their teachers, even to the mighty Hector, for whom ends never justify means and for whom knowledge is valuable in its own right.

By the way, I loved your line about an unfanged Laughton. I suspect Hector would have liked it as well.

Just spotted this comment; thanks much, you're obv. correct about how this changes things. The British education system is insanely difficult for us Americans to understand.

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