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The History Boys
cast: Samuel Anderson, James Corden, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard Griffiths, and Frances de la Tour

director: Nicholas Hytner

109 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail
[released 5 March]

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Closely based on an all-conquering play by Alan Bennett, it was absolutely unavoidable that The History Boys would eventually appear as a film, bringing Bennett's tale of sex and learning to a wider audience. However, in trying to rebottle the lightning that made this play such a theatrical success, director Nicholas Hytner produces a film so utterly theatrical that it not only fails to convince as a film in itself, but it also serves to remind us why millions of us would rather go to the cinema than the theatre.

The History Boys suffers from two distinct sets of problems. Firstly, it suffers for being a rather crude attempt to cut and paste a play onto a film. This is the level of criticism that ultimately sank the film at the box office and, quite rightly so, has proved the main focus of most of the film's reviews. However, to focus merely on how wildly the Hytner-Bennett double act misfires (despite it working brilliantly for The Madness Of King George) completely ignores the deeper problems with the play itself... namely the absurdity of Bennett's views on sexuality and education and the horrific bittersweet smugness that permeates his work like the smell of semen and fear on a catholic priest's clothes.

The film and play follow a group of A-level students who, after recording some excellent results, are told to return for another term in order to prepare for their applications to Oxford and Cambridge. Sculpted by the no-nonsense style of history teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and the wilful eccentricity and poetry of corpulent sexual predator and English teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), the boys are deemed by the headmaster to be lacking in flair leading him to hire a young Oxford graduate to teach them how to pass the exam and how to impress examiners. This battle of educational styles forms one of the main axes of the film. Many critics (and, I'm sure, Bennett himself) characterise this battle of styles as a battle between the idea of learning as an end in itself and learning as a gateway to higher achievement. Here, the timeframe is worth mentioning as in 1982, the Thatcher government's more vocational approach to education was gaining ground and, doubtless, Bennett sees this film as a criticism of that capitalistic view of learning. However, if you look beyond the posturing this film simply is not about vocational versus intellectual education. All of the boys are looking to study history and all of the boys are given a broad grounding in the humanities. These are hardly students wondering whether they should be doing philosophy or business studies! In truth, the film sets up a confrontation between different conceptions of what is (to borrow a term from Barton Fink) "the Life of the Mind."

In Hector is embodied a rather romantic idea of erudition. Hector loudly proclaims his failure to understand poetry and his inability to understand the Holocaust and sees these as positive virtues. Under this account, being an educated person means an ability to quote from memory huge chunks of poetry whilst never actually engaging in any rigorous thought because to look too closely at something is to explain it and to explain it is to understand it and there are some things that shouldn't be understood. This is the view you find held nowadays by Luddite religious types and, in the past, has been held by romantic poets such as Wordsworth. Meanwhile, in Irwin is embodied the idea that nothing is sacred. Irwin teaches that it is not enough to say something technically true, it is also important to challenge conventional wisdom and to pick fights with received opinion. This is the approach to education that is currently dominant in universities and academia and it is reflective of a culture where truth is a constantly evolving thing and that the only way to move forward is to keep kicking over anthills until you find the right one that will change how everyone views the world. As a result, Irwin teaches his students to write essays about how Stalin was actually "a sweetie."

My problems with this dichotomy are that, firstly, it isn't the dichotomy that Bennett seems to think it is; being cynical and smart is no more vocational than being blandly clever and smug. In fact, I imagine that wanting to question everything all the time and being cynical is a good way to not get anywhere in your career. Secondly, Bennett's decision to clearly favour the Hector side of the debate is not only incredibly reactionary it is also unbearably smug. For Bennett, 'the Life of the Mind' is all about having your safe protected truths that you don't examine so that you can then spend your time learning old songs and having a "deep reverence" for words. Anyone who actually sees learning or the discovery of truth as a goal-oriented task to be accomplished is instantly dismissed as vocational 'trade' fit only for the likes of the university of Bristol or Newcastle. Indeed, in Bennett's approach to learning we see the smug condescension of the Oxford humanities graduate.

The film's second source of drama is the attitude towards sexuality. Hector is married but is known to his students as a grabby old queen. Right from the start, it's clear, only the gay student wants to take old Hector up on his bike ride home. However, one day, the group's stud takes up Hector's offer and Hector is seen groping the student's package. However, this type of behaviour does not stop there as Irwin is soon revealed to have a crush on the same student and the gay student goes on to become a teacher who has to restrain himself from chasing after the boys. This is the other reason why the film is set in 1982, had a contemporary teacher groped a child he'd be in every tabloid rather than tolerated. Indeed, Bennett seems to suggest that being groped by a teacher is the price one must pay for the best education. This is certainly the attitude the boys have as they adore Hector but put up with his lascivious tendencies.

Firstly, this is deeply creepy stuff. The relationship between the pedagogue and the paedophile is a long one. The Greeks famously had relationships between beard-less boys and bearded men who would 'tutor' them in the ways of manhood and one memorable quote I once heard from a supporter of the North American Man-Boy Love Association was that "afin d'etre un bon pedagogue, in faut d'abords etre paedophile" - meaning that in order to be a good teacher, you must first be a paedophile. It is somewhat worrying that Bennett should be choosing to champion this view under the aegis of tolerance but this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as Bennett's weird views on sexuality are concerned. The film is set in 1982; among the students are not only a Jew and a Muslim but also a self-professed homosexual. These minorities are not just tolerated but are actively clutched to the group's bosom. In fact, even the group's womanising stud offers to let Irwin suck him off and the whole gang of students gleefully sing show-tunes and quote Bette Davis movies in an absolute deluge of campness that is only exacerbated by the theatricality of the performances. This is the same view of sexuality that was used in the TV series Six Feet Under and pieces of gay cinema such as La Chatte a Deux Tetes and Eating Out and to say that it is unrealistic is something of an understatement. The school and the community in which this film is set are so tolerant and accepting that they seem to be little more than fantasies for Bennett; a world he wishes he had grown up in where one's choice of sexual partners not only did not carry any social impediments but seemingly not any biological ones either. Combine this fantastical element with the tolerance of teacher-student sexual relationships and that creepy feeling can only increase.

So we have confrontations between reactionary and progressive views of education presented as critiques of vocational education and odes to young boys with fluid sexualities and grateful attitudes towards older men who take them under their wing presented as odes to tolerance. To say that this film is conceptually misjudged would be to be extremely charitable to Bennett. However, this is not the first or the last film to talk total shit, so to dismiss it on the grounds that it is 'wrong' would be unfair. Especially seeing as there are plenty more reasons to dislike this film.

Hytner has chosen to cast the film with the same people who were most successful with the parts on stage. In the case of Griffiths and de la Tour, this proves to be a wise choice as the two ageing character actors have the charisma and the skill to dilute their performances for the screen and hit their respective interpretative marks perfectly. However, the students are supposed to be a bunch of working-class lads from Yorkshire that are a bit rough around the edges. In truth they are camp, twittery and as theatrical as the gaggle of RADA graduates they most certainly are... you half expect them to arrive on screen wearing leg warmers, sipping from a mineral water bottle and calling each other 'darling'. If these kids were supposed to be effete public school boys you would think their performances unrealistically light but as Yorkshire grammar school boys they are an outright farce. The film's language and deliveries are so stylised and static that they feel horribly antiquated and twee despite Hytner's increasingly desperate attempts to filmise the performances and script by including a few montages and a freely moving camera that darts in and out of the conversations. If the play is supposed to get across a sense of intellectual joy and passion then this film can be cast as an absolute failure as the debates seldom feel passionate or important but rather the product of intellectual masturbation by people with too much time on their hands... though perhaps this is simply a result of my own lack of sympathy for the approach to education embodied by Hector.

The History Boys is a frustrating watch as for all the wrongness of Bennett's opinions; the film does cover some interesting ideas (albeit from frankly deranged perspectives). The theatricality of the boys' performances makes them profoundly unsympathetic, as they are a little too glib and clever to be really likeable. The blame for the disaster that is this film can arguably be laid equally at the feet of Bennett for producing the screenplay and Hytner for failing to turn said screenplay into a workable film. As it is, the ideas are confused, the performances are horrid, the jokes all fall flat, the tone is relentlessly smug and I'm suddenly reminded of how much I hated studying Talking Heads at school.

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