Archive for Nicholas Hytner

Film Review: The History Boys (2006)

Posted in Film Reviews, Homophobia with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2012 by innothingwetrust


Have I missed something here? I think I must have missed something. I didn’t get a joke perhaps or failed to pick up on some subtle piece of subtext. Because the only words running through my head as the credits rolled at the end of The History Boys began with the letters ‘W’, ‘T’ and ‘F’.

The History Boys is a film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s 2004 play of the same name. It is a shame that I have not seen the stage version as it might have shed some more light on the very strange storyline, although given that the film features the same cast as the original version, perhaps it would not have been that helpful.

The basic plot is pretty straightforward: set in a Sheffield boys’ Grammar School in the 1970s, a class of history students attain the highest A-level results the school has ever achieved and their last term is spent being prepared for Oxbridge entry exams. But the hard facts and figures which satisfied A-level examiners will not cut the mustard when applying to Oxbridge and the headmaster Felix (Clive Merrison) drafts in the somewhat maverick supply teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to teach the boys about flair and originality in their writing – even if it means blurring the historical truth a bit. Irwin’s emphasis on writing to persuade and for achievement is in direct contrast to the boys’ regular tutors Mrs. Linott (Frances de la Tour) and Hector (Richard Griffiths) who stress the importance of searching for truth and learning for learning’s sake and the pupils find themselves divided over whose approach they prefer.

I’ll get the pleasantries out of the way first because, like the film, this review is going to end on a weird note. And there very much are pleasantries.

Firstly, there isn’t a single poor performance in sight. Each of the boys stamp a strong personality on their character including the young James Corden as Timms, Dominic Cooper as the class heart-throb Dakin and Samuel Barnett as gay Jewish student David Posner whose singing voice is even better than his acting. The teachers also play out an engaging secondary plot as they vie for the pupils’ attention, each adding their unique spin to their approach.

This is also a very intellectual (if uneventful) film with a challenging script full of literary quotes and wisdom which the excellent cast deliver without breaking a sweat. My only criticism here is that occasionally the script is so heavily layered with subtext that it loses sight of what is really trying to be said. The compulsion to say things through the words of Blake or Keats sometimes over-eggs the oratorical pudding which becomes a little hard to swallow. But largely it is clever, entertaining and often witty.

As a more neutral point, The History Boys was very obviously a play before it was a film. You would be able to tell that even if you didn’t already know it. Not only is the cast and director (Nicholas Hytner) the same as the first incarnation, but the stage style of narrative and the way that it can get away with not really being very realistic is retained (eg. a particular conversational cue makes Posner and Scripps jump up to the piano to perform a barnstorming sing-song – this would not actually happen in a school, but that’s theatre for you). There is no real effort made to adapt the medium and perhaps if it had, the boards beneath the actors’ feet would not have creaked so loudly. However, whether or not this was necessary is a matter of debate. I think it was.

Moving onto my main gripes, what is very odd about this story is the way that the theme of sexuality is dealt with. A number of the characters grapple with their own sexuality as it appears in different ways.  For example, Dakin, the ‘good looking’ one, is bursting with smutty comments and enjoys regaling his class mates with stories of his increasingly adventurous sexual encounters with the Headmaster’s secretary Fiona (Georgia Taylor). Then there is Posner, whose impulses toward Dakin are suppressed by his religion and his own uncertainty. These things could have been an interesting angle looking at the formative years of smouldering adolescent sexuality and its manifestations, but such issues are afforded minimal screen time in favour of a much stranger storyline which is treated with alarming flippancy.

It is Hector, the boys’ General Studies teacher who is the main focus. It is alluded to early on, and then shown, that Hector regularly fondles the boys’ genitalia when they catch a ride home with him on his moped. However, not only is this behaviour not reported, it is joked about and laughed off by the boys as if it is a small price to pay for a lift home – oh Hector, what are you like?! As I said, have I missed something here?? Toward the end of the film, Merrison’s headmaster – quite rightly – berates Hector for his behaviour after one such fumble is reported by a sharp-eyed lollipop lady, explaining in no uncertain terms that “It’s not normal!” before informing Hector of his impending redundancy. Astonishingly, the film treats Hector with complete sympathy – a minor telling off from fellow teacher Mrs. Linott is vastly outweighed by the pupils’ solemn reaction to the news that Hector is going to lose his job. This reaction leads to Dakin entrapping Felix into re-hiring Hector by threatening to expose his own chauvinistic harassment of secretary Fiona – lo and behold, yay, Hector gets his job back! WHAT?! No matter how engaging, learned or witty a teacher you are, surely – surely – a line must be drawn quite a distance short of engaging in sexual activity with your teenage students. Not according to The History Boys, apparently. I wonder why.

Is it because it was a ‘different time’? The seventies were not that long ago, and I’m pretty sure unwelcome sexual advances were just as unwelcome 40 years ago. Does the veneer of theatre cover up gaps in realism as I previously mentioned? This applies mainly to the way characters behave in an exaggerated and caricatured manner, but to an extent, yes, the theatrical style does somehow paper over the cracks of possibility with the lacquer of ‘artistry’. But that still doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Perhaps The History Boys gets away with such a blase attitude toward sexual harassment because it is homosexual in nature.

In the final scene of the film, Mrs Linott walks us down a path of the boys’ futures. Posner has followed in Hector’s footsteps and become a teacher, “without touching the boys”, he jokes. That line would be ok as just a joke, but the addition of the line “which is always a struggle” again reduces the character and the situation to farce because the protagonist happens to be gay. Would this have been so ‘humourous’ if Posner was straight and teaching in a girls’ school? Likewise, would this play and film have been half as credible if Hector had been caressing teenage girls on his commute? Conversely, would there have been half as much moral quandary if it had been a hot female teacher doing the fondling? You can decide for yourself, but this reviewer sees such frivolity as reflective of the fact that homosexuality still isn’t taken seriously in modern culture. But that’s another rant entirely.

It must be added that perhaps fate has the last laugh as the very afternoon Hector is reinstated, he is killed in a road accident. However, this doesn’t appear to have anything to do with his former wrongdoings. Moreover, if it is supposed to be some sort of karmic conclusion, then I think the story goes very much too far in imposing death upon the portly teacher.

And the banana on top of this cat food cake is applied when Dakin propositions inspirational teacher Irwin for a celebratory, exams-passing blow-job – a date for which Irwin vows to make a space in his diary. Just because, you know, that’s what happens.

To say that this film differed from my expectations would be putting it lightly. It promises to be an engaging and intelligent story of literary exploration and preparation for the pomp and ceremony of Oxbridge enrolment. However, the truly bizarre sexual overtones drain the credibility from the story for me, although there is still some very good dialogue throughout. In the absence of the ability to quite make sense of it all, I ask for a third time – have I missed something? Answers on a postcard please. Or, indeed, in the ‘reply’ section of this post.

RATING: 5/10

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