Following its acclaimed run at the National Theatre in 2004 and on Broadway earlier this year, Alan Bennett's play The History Boys has been shepherded to the screen by its original director, Nicholas Hytner. Now it will have a chance of taking home an Oscar or two. Well, a mantelpiece can look so bare with only Oliviers and Tonys on it, don't you find? Whether The History Boys deserves such approbation is another matter. In cinematic form it is no more than a gay Dead Poets Society, or The Breakfast Club with A-levels.
New Order's "Blue Monday" whisks us back to 1983, when sixth formers at a Yorkshire grammar school are preparing for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance examination. Posner (Samuel Barnett) is an effeminate swot who yearns after the roguish Dakin (Dominic Cooper). Scripps (Jamie Parker) is a devoted churchgoer. Rudge (Russell Tovey) is the phlegmatic sportsman. Some of the remaining students were merely "Boy One" or "Boy Two" in an early draft. They may have names now, but despite the efforts of the spirited young cast, these vague figures are essentially Black Boy, Asian Boy and Fat Boy.
Presiding over the class are the history tutor, Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and flamboyant Hector (Richard Griffiths), who imparts to the boys all manner of random literary teachings, encouraging them to absorb knowledge for nourishment, rather than to pass exams. This runs counter to the wishes of the headmaster (Clive Merrison), who knows that his school's reputation will improve if the pupils can win Oxbridge places. To this end, he recruits a new teacher, Mr Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). Where Hector is unkempt in everything from his tastes to his waistline, Irwin is wiry and focused. He encourages the class to adopt snazzy angles in their essays - to argue, say, that Stalin was an absolute pussycat - in order to keep the examiners from dozing off.
The stage is set for a showdown between Hector and Irwin but, to the film's credit, this never materialises. We have Hytner's sympathetic camera direction to thank for that. The script may take against the aggressively modern Irwin, who is the kind of revisionist historian that Bennett has deplored openly. But Hytner's close-ups of Stephen Campbell Moore, who looks like a police photofit of Hugh Laurie, wisely make him seem warmer than the writer may have intended. As Hector, Griffiths carries off the big emotional flourishes with the relish of a man who has waited all his life for a part this good and knows it may not come again. And I'll never tire of de la Tour, who moves like a human slinky and has the breathy voice of an obscene caller. But it is Campbell Moore who lodges in the memory: wavering between smug confidence and vulnerability, he seems deliciously unknowable, even to himself.
If only the sense of mystery extended to the rest of the film. Hytner can't be blamed for the script's graceless stabs at profundity, or the final scene that rips off Annie Hall - these flaws are down to Bennett. After a starchy opening half-hour, Hytner does his best to establish a gentle rhythm: the lines gradually stop sounding like epigrams and we get to savour some of Bennett's sizzlingly euphemistic dialogue, in the manner of the exchange between the Queen and Anthony Blunt in his 1988 play A Question of Attribution. Here, the conversation is between two men debating whether Poland was surprised to be invaded by Germany. What they are really discussing is how best to breach each other's borders.
Yet the material needs a more thorough rethink. Scenes that might have sprung to life on stage - including a painfully unfunny French lesson, during which I wanted to raise my hand and ask to be excused - die a protracted death on screen. Bennett and Hytner encountered no such problems in their stage-to-screen adaptation of The Madness of King George (1994). With The History Boys, they appear to have forgotten that cinema is another country. They do things differently there.
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