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HISTORY BOYS, THE(director: Nicholas Hytner; screenwriters: Alan Bennett/based on his play; cinematographer: Andrew Dunn; editor: John Wilson; music: George Fenton; cast: Richard Griffiths (Hector), Frances de la Tour (Mrs. Lintott), Stephen Campbell Moore (Irwin), Samuel Barnett (Posner), Dominic Cooper (Dakin), James Corden (Timms), Jamie Parker (Scripps), Russell Tovey (Rudge), Samuel Anderson (Crowther), Sacha Dhawan (Akhtar), Andrew Knott (Lockwood), Penelope Wilton (Mrs. Bibby), Adrian Scarborough (Wilkes), Georgia Taylor (Fiona), Clive Merrison (Headmaster); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Kevin Loader/Damian Jones/Nicholas Hytner; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2006)
“The transfer from stage to film doesn’t always go smoothly, as it’s hard to shake the film’s theater roots.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nicholas Hytner’s (“Center Stage”/”The Crucible”/”The Madness of King George”) adaptation of Alan Bennett’s Broadway Tony Award-winning play is set in Cutler’s Grammar School in Yorkshire, a middle-class boys’ school in northern England, in 1983 (it’s the British counterpart of an American public high school). Hytner also directed the hit play with the same cast and script in both London and on Broadway. It focuses on a group of eight working-class students, all of them a bit crass but recognized as bright by their zealous, pompous and snooty results-orientated headmaster (Clive Merrison).

The transfer from stage to film doesn’t always go smoothly, as it’s hard to shake the film’s theater roots. The film offers witty but unbelievable dialogue for an eighteen-year-old; but it admirably gives voice to rally around the flag of imagination to inspire the student body instead of being mired in traditional rigidity and dullness. Yet the broad comedy never is funny and its crafty attempt at wordplay seems self-defeating when the featured students are not really sympathetic figures, as they cram to get into the elite schools of Oxford and Cambridge. The group of eight are so impudent and most seem like soulless show-off brainy types, that I never took an interest in their ambitious struggle especially when they never really had much to say that didn’t seem thin.

Two different styled teachers–the aging, obese, gay, motorcycle riding, romantic, unorthodox French and literature teacher Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths) and the pragmatic, cynical and nerdy younger recent Oxford grad temp teacher Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) who has been brought in to teach how to pass the entrance exam, vie for the affections of the students. Hector speaks for poetry, movies, pop culture and learning for its own sake, while smarty-pants Irwin speaks for career opportunities, boldness and beating the college game by being cunning and opportunistic and knowing how to put on a good performance. They each make good points and the students give them both their full attention. Though Hector gropes the students and is sometimes misunderstood, he gives his all in teaching and years later he’s the “real” teacher students will fondly remember for inspiring them. This comes out when the third teacher who inspired the boys, the dedicated droll-humored, no-nonsense, master history teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Lintott (Frances de la Tour), relates at the film’s last scene what happened in later years to the boys.

Dakin (Dominic Cooper) is the cocky handsome leader of the eight privileged students ready to move up the social ladder; he has the hots for the headmaster’s alluring secretary Fiona (Georgia Taylor) and knows how to use his good looks to attract both male teachers. Also in love with Dakin is the misfit, gay, nerdy, Jewish fellow student Posner (Samuel Barnett). The overweight Timms (James Corden) is the class clown; Rudge (Russell Tovey) is the oafish jock who is only there to satisfy his working-class dad; Scripps (Jamie Parker) is the gabby Christian; Akhtar (Sacha Dhawan) registers as the group’s Muslim and the one other minority student, Crowther (Samuel Anderson), is noteworthy only because he’s black.

Bennett’s satire takes aim on the Thatcher values that push for a results-oriented society, which is similar to Reagan’s government ushering in the cynical era of greed. The film in an adult way cleverly waltzes around the theme that public British schoolboy homo-eroticism cannot be ignored because it’s alive and well and does a decent job showing that gay students and teachers are no better or worse than straights. Which is not a profound statement, but considering the current homophobic climate that springs up much too often in American society it’s something that has to be said. It also tells us that history is just something that happens and that no teacher can ever make it completely sensible. My problem was not in the so-called subversive call for teaching to be allowed to go ‘out of the box’ if it’s done with a love for reaching the students’ best instincts, but that the film never lived up to what it was preaching and was clumsily and mechanically presented–hardly inspiring as a work of art, more like a sermon to the choir. It’s watchable because Richard Griffiths, who absolutely stole Withnail and I (1986), does the same here with an engaging mega performance as the inspired teacher most people would have liked to have had during their schooldays.

REVIEWED ON 12/19/2007 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”