I enjoyed The History Boys much more than it really deserves to be enjoyed because it’s so darn intellectual, in that show-offy way that lets you feel smart and superior for being in the company of wiseasses who quote T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy in contextually appropriate ways and you get it. Who ape iconic scenes from classic movies and you can laugh with recognition. And for being witty and modern enough to include classic movies in the canon of knowledge a well-rounded education is supposed to bestow.
Which lends an ironic edge to the major downside of the film: it’s too stagey, and yet it lacks the vital energy of the stage production it is adapted from. Well, I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to the stage show — I haven’t seen it. Maybe on the stage The History Boys is as emotionally uninvolving as it is on film. I suspect what’s causing the problem with the film, though, is that is doesn’t use the medium to bring us into an intimate new space we can share with the characters, one that the stage couldn’t give us. It’s one thing to plop cameras in front of a musical that’s big and brash and all shiny sparkles — as with the recent movie versions of Chicago and The Producers, which worked just fine. Those weren’t “movies” — they were spectacle, the ultimate roadshow, one that would reach audiences who would never get to live theater.
But The History Boys, the film, is not that, is not attempting to be that, and never could be that — it’s trying to be a film, but it’s nowhere near cinematic enough to succeed on the emotional level it clearly wants to claim. This is meant to be a dramedy aching with the clashing angsts of adolescence, of intellectualism, of late middle age, but director Nicholas Hytner doesn’t delve into the middle of the psychic space: he keeps a distance, keeps us — frustratingly — just on the outside peeking in. I want to say Hytner is keeping a respectful distance, because diving it might have required greater alterations to Alan Bennett’s play than anyone was willing to make, but the result does not feel respectful. “They’re clever,” the school headmaster says about his students preparing for the entrance exam for Oxford and Cambridge Universities, “but they’re crass.” And that’s how the film feels: clever, but crass.
And that’s too bad. Because it’s rare enough to see a movie so in love with learning, one that looks at poetry and art history and literature not as means to an end but as valuable ends in themselves. The major conflict of the story is between the unconventional and free-spirited teacher the kids call Hector (Richard Griffiths: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Stage Beauty) — who encourages intellectual exploration, even intellectual anarchy, who imparts wisdom and knowledge that is unpredictable, unquantifiable, and untestable, which drives the stuffed-shirt headmaster (Clive Merrison: Up at the Villa, The English Patient) crazy — and the results-driven young hotshot (Stephen Campbell Moore) the head brings in to drill the Oxbridge candidates on what it takes to pass the exam, even if it requires intellectual dishonesty. But that conflict never really catches fire in a way that makes us care whether these eight students — all boys — figure out for themselves which kind of education they want for themselves. It never makes us care that it’s been the “leadership” of guys like these, eventual products of two of the most prestigious schools on the planet, that has driven their only female teacher (Frances de la Tour: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) to exclaim that history is “five centuries of male ineptitude… a commentary on the various and many incapabilities of men.” There’s tons more snark like that, but it’s never more than mere tossed-off one-liners. We’re supposed to care that modern society and educational methods are molding these young lads into future examples of incapable ineptitude… and we never do.
The one thing that Hytner gets so right that it’s scary is an evocation of the early-80s period in which the film is set — not just the clothes and the music but the nubby, grubby look of a film that’s been laying around for 25 years and only recently rediscovered. It’s so convincing that you find yourself wondering just what the hell happened to the very talented young cast who played all these students all those years ago — Dominic Cooper as the hotshot Dakin and Samuel Barnett as the shy, sensitive Posner in particular are especially good even across the distance Hytner maintains. And then you realize, Wait, nothing happened to them: they’re happening right now. On that meta level, at least, The History Boys offers a glimmer of hope for the future… of British cinema, if not of British society.