Saturday, 10 March 2007

The History Boys (2006)

The History Boys

The History Boys was an extremely successful, and critically acclaimed, West End play, written by Alan Bennett, which has subsequently gone on to have similar success on Broadway. Its origins as a successful theatrical piece are both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

Taking a popular piece of theatre, complete with original cast and theatre director, and transplanting them into the world of film could be considered a somewhat foolhardy move at the best of times, and so it proves here. The end-result, as evidenced by this DVD, is a rather stilted, overly theatrical and overly sentimental piece that just doesn't tick any of the right boxes when it comes to critiquing it as a movie. Admittedly there's enough here to please those who like their DVD experience to be of the safe 'Miss Marple Investigates' variety, but for this viewer the end-result felt soggy, self-indulgent and far too light for me to have any real enthusiasm for it.

The History Boys screencap

The History Boys is essentially the story of eight boys who are excited by life and the future it offers them, and four adults who are disillusioned by it. It's also a story about passing lessons learnt from life experience on to the next generation, in the vain hope they won't make the same mistakes you've made. The History Boys of the title, who come from a variety of backgrounds, attend a northern Grammar school in the mid-80's and are swotting for the Oxbridge entrance exams. Although set in the Thatcher years this is not the 80's that I remember, with the boys' open-mindedness and completely uncritical attitudes towards sexual orientation seemingly transferred from some time in the long distant future.

As the film opens the boys have received their A-level results and are being encouraged to increase their efforts for Oxbridge entrance exams by a pushy, over-ambitious head-master. Three members of the school's staff are on hand to help them, each with very different views on what education should be, and their own unique approaches to teaching and differing views on how their success should be measured.

Francis de la Tour is in many ways the traditionalist amongst the teaching staff, somewhat worn down and disillusioned by the misogynist world she lives and works in. She's achieved success in getting the boys to the point where they're being considered for Oxbridge, but there's a recognition that she can achieve no more because her strict regimen of learning the facts, writing the essays and doing the hard work of learning the basics is not enough in a world that wants original thought and ideas. She has a good friendship with another teacher, played by Richard Griffiths who takes a very different view. He has no interest in academic achievement, preferring to concentrate on lessons for life, challenging the boys to question everything around them, turning lessons into plays and re-enactments of his favourite films and other pieces of pop culture. The boys like and respect him, despite the somewhat salacious reputation he has earnt through his infamous offers of motorcycle rides over the school term. Such lifts invariably result in him 'copping a feel' of his passenger, in what the writer and director call a 'harmless grope', harmless presumably because there's nothing overtly sexual in it and clothes are never removed. The film is treading on dangerous ground here, and part of the reason it doesn't work is because it's hard to think of any parents thinking that a teacher groping his pupils is in any way 'harmless', even if they have all reached puberty. Griffiths character is married, but he is clearly a repressed homosexual, and there is a sadness and disillusionment to him that somehow makes his 'victims' tolerant of his odd and frankly unacceptable behaviour.

The History Boys screencap

One of the pupils is also gay, and openly and ridiculously infatuated with the obvious leader of the group, who seems alarmingly at ease with the fact one of his friends desperately wants to get jiggy with him, even though he has no interest whatsoever. Somewhat ironically, the gay pupil is the only boy that Griffiths' character never offers a lift on his bike to, the message apparently being that the teacher's behaviour is acceptable because he only ever indulges in it with people who won't allow it to go any further.

Things seem relatively settled between teaching staff and pupils until a new, younger teacher shows up and poses a real threat to Griffiths' relationship with the boys. The new teacher (Stephen Campbell Moore) is not much older than the boys themselves, and stimulates the boys in a way that the older and more traditional colleagues can't. However, he is actually himself a closeted gay, and one who finds himself falling for the same 'straight' leader of the schoolboy group that the gay pupil is infatuated with.

It's potentially a great set-up, but alas sentimentality and whimsy take over, removing any believability the basic story might have. Even if one accepts the tolerance shown towards the teachers, who really should know better, and the way the gay pupil is treated as one of the gang with none of his school mates feeling in any way threatened by his sexuality, the denouement whereby the straight lead boy offers to have sex with the gay teacher, merely as thanks for getting him through his exams, is the fantasy stuff of gay wank magazines, not of a mainstream-oriented movie like this. I've met lots of people who are secure enough with their own sexuality to feel at ease with those of a different persuasion, but the gay argument that 'all men are secretly gay, even if they think they're straight' has never washed with me, and my stock reply to that rather tired line is 'So following your argument through to its logical conclusion, let's see you make out with a woman then'!

The History Boys screencap

Fortunately, gay wish-fulfillment issues aside, there's enough here to entertain those of a more heterosexual persuasion, even when the stretch in credibility has weakened a strong premise. The boys are a likeable bunch, and the important argument that 'Education shouldn't just be about passing exams' is well presented here, even if at times the message is delivered in a manner akin to being hit over the head with a big hammer labeled 'Political Propaganda'.

Griffiths is always good value (even if he does always play the same character), and he's joined by a cast that can match his performance. The boys are all very natural, and unselfconscious, particularly the actor playing the boy closest to Bennett's own character (he's the religious, piano playing pupil in case you don't notice him), and the seemingly doomed-to-a-life-of-loneliness gay pupil. But the film's all too wordy, too theatrical and too far-fetched to be the success one so wants it to be. As a result The History Boys is yet another in a long line of British films that shout 'This is OK as a Sunday night drama on the telly, but not much else' at you. It would be nice if we could make films that rise above the level of merely 'mediocre' every once in a while!

The History Boys screencap

The transfer to DVD is fine, but we are talking TV production values here, with a director who's clearly not used to film-making. This is certainly not a showcase for big screens or surround systems.

There is a commentary (oddly missing from the Special Features listed on the sleeve), which features both director and writer throughout. It's fairly lively, but overly gushing, as if the film has been acknowledged as the same masterpiece that the stage play was, which is clearly not the case. There's a lot of talk about changes made for the film, and differences in style and acting required of the cast, but little evidence of these supposed changes where it matters - up on the screen.

Things don't get much better with the other extra's. There's a charming home video, made by the boys themselves, of the world tour of the play, undertaken just before work on the film started, and taking in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the States, but clearly the boys have over-reacted to the play's success and at one point they rather naively talk about the film being viewed as a classic in ten, twenty or thirty years time, as if they were making Casablanca or Citizen Kane. There's a reasonable 'Making of' featurette, which suffers from the same gushing enthusiasm as the other extra's, and that's about it. Not overly generous, but not too shabby for the first release of a film that's as recent as this one is.

The film's certainly worth a rental, and fans of 'feel good' movies will like the way the extremely downbeat ending of the original stage play has been replaced with a more optimistic vision of the future for the film. But it's not a film you're likely to want to revisit often, and if you like the sound of the basic plot you're probably better off going to see the stage play (for which a £10 discount coupon is enclosed in the box). The History Boys is mildly interesting, and despite its seemingly controversial subject matter, innocuously entertaining. The back-story may sound rather sleazy but in truth there's not much here that would shock your grandma. But it feels very much like a missed opportunity, and it's certainly not the classic one might have expected given the success of television version of Bennett's other works.

The History Boys screencap


Brian Sibley said...

Can't comment on the film as I haven't seen it and I haven't seen it because I saw the play and thought it self-indulgent and totally fantastical...

The events depicted couldn't actually have taken place in any school other than, maybe, one attended by Alan Bennett in his gay dreams...

The audience of middle-aged, middle-class theatre-goers adored it, but I couldn't believe the episode with the boys acting out scenes from old B&W movies from the '40s and the episode where they had conversations entirely in French left me (as a non-French speaker) feeling ignorant and excluded...

Interestingly the play had a kicker when the straight pupil turns up on a TV location where the young teacher (now a TV history documentary presenter) is making a film -- and blackmails him about their gay encounter...

Ian said...

According to the commentary track the ending made to the end of the film was what happens to the gay pupil. I gather that in the play he had a miserable, sad ending. For the film they decided he'd become a teacher and was content in his life, thus carrying forward the "Pass it on" theme.

They had the same thing about the young teacher becoming a TV presenter but there was nothing about the blackmail.

All very silly anyway, as you say.