“The History Boys” is a stellar film and is a delight to watch. It is also one of the few mainstream films that manages to pull off a gay theme and survive—not only does it survive, it reaches new heights. Allen Bennett has crafted the most literate of scripts and the cast that binds the story together give incredible performances with Stephen Campbell Moore and Samuel Barnett as outstanding. The chemistry between cast members is something I have never seen the likes of—it is natural and delightful to watch. The wit of the film is scintillating.
The movie is set in the 1980’s and eight secondary school students who qualify for the Oxbridge entrance exams are proud of their accomplishment and are determined to capitalize on the prospects that might follow such an achievement. The film is about them and their teachers as well as the purpose of education, academic competition and coming of age along with teen sexuality.
With their successful test scores the eight are almost guaranteed admission to Oxford or Cambridge but their headmaster at their secondary school, Cutler’s Grammar School in Sheffield, hires a special tutor to make sure the boys do well on their tests. During the cram course the development of the plot takes place.
The eight boys in question have all but graduated and they are simply spending an extra term to prepare for the exams that will determine which university they will attend. It appears that everything is dependent upon their skills in history and that is why two instructors have been added to their study schedule. Hector approaches history in new ways by adding movie trivia, show tunes and a potpourri of interesting tidbits. The other teacher, Irwin, feels that history is anything people will accept. It is the balance between the two teachers and the interaction with the students that brings all of the wit to the fore.
The movie is so much about history as it is about the boys themselves. It deals with homosexuality in the shyest of ways which makes the movie seem a bit like a soap opera. Posner, the student, (Samuel Barnett) is infatuated with Dakin (Dominic Cooper), his classmate who is straight but flirts with guys and hopes to seduce his teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) who is ambiguous sexually. Add Hector to this who enjoys playing with his student’s sex organs. This is treated as eccentric and even though it is illegal and unethical is considered as nothing more than a slight detail. Hector is played as a rather pathetic person with us having to believe that he is one of the most respected persons at the school. His students who he molests think of his behavior as just fun. The boys are open and accepting about homosexuality and especially about gay flirting.
It is true that not much goes on in the film—but that is fine because the dialog and the actors make up for whatever may be missing. I understood that the message of the film was that the educational system is not much more than a game to be played and actual learning is a byproduct of the game. One special point that I loved was the way the movie played lip service to the notion that homosexuality is a “metaphor for living boldly” and regards gay life as nothing more than sexuality and sensuality and sensitivity are not even considered. I loved this because this is what so many think—it is us that live the gay life that know differently.
Richard Griffiths is magnificent as Hector who fills the boys with poetry with the sole purpose of enhancing their lives. Hs presence consumes the screen and I found myself imagining what it would be like to sit in his classes.
When the boys speak as a kind of chorus the movie reaches heights. It is the boys who make this movie—they are just amazing. The film is funny to the nth even though it has very serious themes and a tragic ending. It has such wit and comic timing and the jokes and one liners are often biting.
I have read some very negative reviews—if fact the majority were negative. I suppose the movie spoke to me because in my early career I was a history teacher and gay. The student/teacher relationships well drawn and intelligent (but very funny) and the movie was, for me, a very uplifting and moving experience. I found myself drawn into each character and identifying with him—rooting for success and being sensitized by relationships. I laughed and I cried.
It is indeed refreshing to see a movie that does not depend upon special effects and computer graphics but instead revolves around characters. What a great experience watching “The History Boys” is.