It’s easy to regard suspension of disbelief as something that’s required for only the most fantastical conceits, but just about every story of any type requires it at some point, so it’s a shame that current-day Hollywood insists on asking us mostly for that suspension in the service of the most ridiculous supernatural beliefs: Jennifer Garner can see into the future, or Denzel Washington can travel into the past, or Billy Bob Thornton is smart enough to work at NASA.
In contrast, The History Boys — adapted by Alan Bennett from his own play, and directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also presided over the stage version — asks us to go back to a place and time (Yorkshire, 1983) when fairly average teenagers ran around casually quoting Housman, Auden, and Larkin. This time never existed, most likely, but it’s always nice to think that, somewhere, there was a grove of smart, sensitive youngsters united in paying careful attention to language, long before the ascendancy of text messaging, which has probably doomed us all to be writing like Prince within a decade or two. (U no wt I mean?) I was talking to a 22-year-old friend the other day about the ongoing decline of serious reading habits. “I went to an Ivy League school,” she said, without airs, “and I know six smart people.”
Bennett asks us to believe in a world where people constantly and unpretentiously say things to each other like “All literature is consolation” and “You like compound adjectives.” He’s got my disbelief for as long as he wants it.
The students of the title are a smart but unpolished class, and they’re approaching the exit exams that will determine whether they go to one of the UK’s most prestigious institutions — Oxford or Cambridge — or to one of the schools a tier or two below, which the boys’ superiors pronounce as if reciting the names of infamous serial killers — Manchester, Leeds, Bristol. The cast is the same group of actors that originated the play in London and later brought it to New York, where I saw it last summer.
The eight featured boys comprise a predictably diverse crew, with most fighting for screen time as the movie focuses the majority of its attention on two of them: Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the handsome, cocky-but-smart, magnetic one who plays Fonzie to the rest of the group’s Potsies and Ralph Malphs, and Posner (Samuel Barnett), a delicate, yearning type who drolly sums himself up so I don’t have to: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. … I’m fucked.” (All the boys are terrific, but Barnett’s assured, poignant turn stands out. In addition to his acting chops, he has a stunning singing voice, put on display in a few brief scenes when he’s accompanied by a fellow student on the piano. I left both theaters hoping he has a long career full of roles as well-conceived as this one.)
The story’s central conflict is a philosophical battle between two teachers: Hector (Richard Griffiths), who urges the kids to love learning purely for its own sake, versus the young Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), an advocate for knowledge as a means to an end, who is brought in by the crassly ambitious headmaster to put a coat of shellac on the boys before it’s too late. Charged with making the boys admission-worthy, Irwin urges them to be aggressively contrarian, telling them that this will impress the sophisticated faculty at the premiere colleges (one of his exercises involves coming up with something nice to say about Stalin). He guides them toward the kind of showy, counterintuitive opinions that will arm them, should Oxford fall through, to become Slate contributors. He leads by pithy example: Walking the class around a memorial to World War I, arguing that Britain has deified its dead servicemen while never taking enough responsibility for the conflict’s outbreak, Irwin says, “There’s no better way of forgetting something than commemorating it.”
Meanwhile, Hector gleefully transmits his enthusiasm for the great works, reeling off lines of poetry for no purpose other than to let them linger prettily in the air. When the students try to put them to a purpose, Hector scolds them for small-mindedness, sometimes hitting them with rolled-up papers, like a frustrated dog owner.
Outside of the classroom, the troupe’s romantic affections make a kaleidoscope of both repressed and outright homosexual desires — Posner pines for Dakin, Dakin (straight as a two-lane Kansas blacktop to this point in his life) is surprised to find himself attracted to Irwin, and the boys take turns riding home on the back of Hector’s motorcycle, putting up with his occasional groping at stop signs. Like the play, the movie (curiously, but also somehow convincingly) treats Hector’s limited physical advances less as symptoms of severe pedophilia and more like isolated, pathetic gestures that are tolerated by mature boys who respect everything else about him. The movie even comically resolves the theme by equating Hector’s behavior with that of the headmaster, who chases after his young blonde secretary in the Benny Hill fashion. While the hint of excusing abuse might be troubling to some, it’s equally true to say the movie’s overall treatment of male homosexuality is pleasingly casual and candid, looking upon it with the same acceptance with which Americans manage to view, say, a lesbian interlude during sophomore year at Smith.
On the stage, everything seemed to revolve around the planetary presence (both literal and metaphorical) of Hector. Griffiths’ obesity is the cartoonish type, as if one of his parents was a hot-air balloon. He is built to play to — and be clearly seen by — the back row. He impresses on the screen, too, but some of his scenes have been trimmed in the transition, and he just doesn’t dominate the movie quite like he did the play. The movie has a way of flattening the most dramatic moments for others as well, moments that in the play were set apart and (maybe just in my memory) spotlit for emphasis. One example will have to do. In both versions, Posner sings “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” while pining for Dakin. In the play, he stands well to the side of his seated classmates on stage, staring across at Dakin but almost spectrally removed from him, as if we’re listening to a serenade that he’s only capable of daydreaming. But in the movie, the two exchange several close-up looks during the performance, Dakin confoundedly (humorously) sizing up his unwanted suitor and Posner adopting a more direct, playful gaze at his object of desire. It’s one of the few moments when the movie is not just different from but lesser than the play.
It’s redundant to say, but the movie is a bit stagy, with two or three too many scenes of drawn-out resolution near the end. And some characters — like the headmaster — remain a bit too broadly played, fine for the stage but more jarring here. But it’s nitpicking to say The History Boys is anything but a sharp, moving, intellectually stimulating experience.
For all the disagreement between Hector and Irwin, there’s a scene toward the end that suggests a potential bridge between their opposed teaching methods. Proudly recounting one of the essays he wrote, Dakin tells Irwin about a mundane, little-remembered event that might have led to Halifax guiding Britain during World War II instead of Churchill and, after describing the pursuit of such knowledge as “subjunctive history” — imagining things that might have happened, like that grove of youngsters — he notes that the subjunctive is Hector’s favorite mood. Perhaps the teachers aren’t as different as they’ve assumed.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
The History Boys / John Williams
Film | December 7, 2006 | Comments ()