Aww, teacher movies. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? Maybe you throw some dance or singing in it, maybe you mix the races and social standings, maybe you make the teacher an ex-Marine or a nun or, heck, a crackhead. In the end, it still comes down to the same basic drill: a passionate teacher who does things his own way, to the dismay of a disapproving headmaster, ultimately makes a bunch of rowdy students into more than they were before he came into their lives.
At first sight, “The History Boys” is particularly derivative. Set in 1983 at a Yorkshire public school, it follows a group of eight young men who learn to love literature and poetry under the tutelage of their eccentric professor Hector (Richard Griffiths). Now you’re thinking “Dead Poets Society”, right? Well, you’re not wrong. Nicholas Hytner‘s film does have the same kind of mix of light comedy and melodrama, crowd-pleasing conventions and literary aspirations. Yet there are three major differences: it’s much more loosely plotted, it’s unexpectedly frank about the homoerotic undertones this kind of movie often has and best of all, no Robin Williams!
The near-total absence of plot probably has to do with the theatrical origins of the material. “The History Boys” is based on the Tony Award-winning play by Alan Bennett, who wrote the screenplay himself. While the film does move out and away from the classroom and doesn’t feel particularly staged (I particularly loved the dynamic montages set to songs from New Order, The Smiths, The Cure and The Clash – eat your heart out, Sofia!), it does have a very wordy quality, with lots of dialogue, monologues and even some musical numbers. They’re all naturally integrated, though, as Hector encourages his pupils to quote and even perform excerpts from great works of art, be it the poems of Thomas Hardy, show tunes like Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (which is also exquisitely reprised by Rufus Wainwright) over the end credits) or classic movie endings (notably “Now Voyager”).
This makes for a very casual, unpredictable and enjoyable viewing experience, as the general idea of young minds being stimulated is not really attached to specific storylines… Though there is the narrative clock of studying for the upcoming Oxbridge entrance exams, which prompts the arrival of Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a younger teacher whose results-oriented methods and embracing of smart-sounding bullshit and pointlessly bold spin sharply contrast with Hector’s unquantifiable inspiration.
And then there’s the gay thing, which is only subtext for most of the film (with the aforementioned show tunes and quoting of Bette Davis, discussions of how many historical and cultural greats were “nancies” and the initially purely incidental fact that Hector, Irwin and one of the boys are homosexuals), but eventually rises to the surface and drives the third act of the story. Without getting into details, it’s quite amazing how the idea of attraction between some of the young men and their teachers is presented without sensationalism, mockery or even judgment. In today’s climate, it’s certainly unusual and refreshing for the lecherous desires of a rotund old man to be portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic way. It certainly helps that, even though his character has an habit of doubling with students on his motorbike and groping them, Richard Griffiths remains an extraordinarily warm and charming screen presence.
One of the best things about “The History Boys” is how comfortable the ensemble cast seems to be with each other. After all, they’d been acting together for a year on stage already when they went out and made the movie. There’s a sense of each of the eight adolescent characters being reduced to a single particularity (the Jew, the Muslim, the jock, the ladies man, the black guy, the fat one, etc.) but that’s okay, as it’s the group dynamic more than the individual personalities that’s of interest in this piece. The ending feels facile and complacent to me, in spite/because of the tragic twist, but “The History Boys” is otherwise a stimulating, rather unique variation on a familiar formula.