In what has to be a first of its kind, the film version of Alan Bennett’s award-lacquered play The History Boys debuts only mere months after sweeping Broadway. The back and forth of theater projects developed into movies and vice versa is enough to give one whiplash these days, though this one retains every single member of its original cast, and sadly, also its director Nicholas Hytner, who never met an adaptation he couldn’t dismantle. A fine stage craftsman, his films range from choppy (The Crucible) to dull (The Madness of King George, also penned by Bennett) to downright insipid (The Object of My Affection). It’s quite amazing, then, how this translation still manages to hold up, most likely because Bennett’s marvelously subversive writing remains intact.
Set in 1983, the film follows the same gaggle of prep school students vying for coveted spots at Oxford and Cambridge under the tutelage of two separate entities: the bigger-than-life (in more ways than one) Hector (Richard Griffiths) whose approach is of the life-lessons variety, favoring movie reenactments and cabaret-style performances by the boys versus dry lectures, and Irwin (the underrated, superb Stephen Campbell Moore), a much younger, less assured professor brought in to boost the boys’ entrance scores. And there’s droll, acidic Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), bravely enduring years of male-dominated turf as a fellow history teacher. When Hector is caught fiddling with one of the boys on his prized motorcycle one day (a common practice, the boys practically draw straws to see who will be the victim du jour), his carefully carved out world of academia is rocked, even while having a “somewhat unexpected wife” (whom we never see).
As in the play, some of the boys are sketchily defined (Samuel Anderson and Sacha Dhawan, as the black and Muslim students, respectively), but some make vivid impressions, notably Samuel Barnett’s hangdog gay misfit Posner, who harbors a wicked crush on sexually voracious Dakin (Dominic Cooper). There’s the religious, cheerful Scripps (Jamie Parker), chubby jokester Timms (James Corden), intense Lockwood (Andrew Knott), and sports enthusiast Rudge (the touching Russell Tovey). The acting patterns of these young performers are a little too imprinted from their two and a half years doing the play around the world, but their instincts still intact, unlike costar Clive Merrison, whose sensible stage portrayal of the headmaster has devolved in the film version into a sneering villain who twitches every line as if he had Tourette’s.
What sets Bennett’s take on the inspirational teacher apart is that none of the instructors are particularly inspirational. Instead of creating cardboard adversaries in Hector and Irwin we are given a more believable pair of troubled souls. As Hector zeroes in on Irwin’s fancy toward the very-forward Dakin, the pupil who most requires the latter’s approval, there’s a chilling recognition taking place. Much of this is the material some theatergoers deemed gay propaganda, but to see it that way is to miss the point. It could as easily have been called The History Girls and the same rules would apply; it’s these boys that fill a void in their lives, and through Griffiths’s and especially Moore’s richly detailed portrayals, we see them inside and out. In a slightly truncated version of their unflappable colleague, de la Tour is just as agile as she was on stage, even if her late monologue about women’s historical significance is still planted at the footlights.
But then this is the fault with Hytner, who rarely finds the right tone for scenes; some are too arrhythmic, some are too sped up. And the use of montages firmly plants the picture in the spirit of ‘80s movies, but in the wrong way. Here, they are perfunctory, and bizarrely less cinematic and spry as the black-and-white film reels shown between scenes in the stage version. Therefore, the heavy lifting is left mainly to the performers, who virtually all make the grade. It’s the director that could use a little detention.