It’s one of the oldest dramatic premises in the business–the one about the aging, lovably eccentric teacher beset by challenges–from hostile superiors, younger colleagues, precocious students, and even his own closely-guarded secrets. You can trace it back a lot further even than “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” That’s why it’s somewhat surprising that Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” has scored such success on the London and Broadway boards and this film version of the stage production (rewritten for the screen by Bennett and featuring the original cast) is being so rapturously received. Sure, it has plenty of engaging chatter courtesy of Bennett’s able pen. (He was one of the four bright lights behind “Beyond the Fringe” nearly fifty years ago, after all.) But despite the fact that it adds a newly fashionable element–homosexuality–to the mix, dramatically it’s actually pretty stale.
Alarmingly rotund Richard Griffiths plays Mr. Hector, the flamboyant, idiosyncratic general studies instructor prepping a group of gifted Sheffield grammar (that is, high) school students for their entrance exams to the elite Oxbridge colleges in the 1980s. The officious headmaster (Clive Merrison), sniffing the possibility of raising the school’s image, takes on a younger instructor, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to supplement Hector’s scattershot instruction with classes that will emphasize ways to write distinctive essays by taking unconventional points of view on standard topics. The pedagogical contrast the script sets up is essentially one between a traditional yet culturally broadening approach represented, however peculiarly, by Hector (and by his more straightforward colleague Dorothy Lintott, played with stentorian authority by Frances de la Tour) with the more modern, calculated one of Irwin, which to the others seems designed to capture the examiners’ approval with glibness rather than scholarly accuracy.
Naturally the students–a characteristically eclectic group, headed by the dazzling Dakin (Dominic Cooper) and including gay Jewish Posner (Samuel Barnett), who has a crush on him, as well as chubby Timms (James Corden), and the more anonymous quartet of Scripps (Jamie Parker), Lockwood (Andrew Knott), Crowther (Samuel Anderson) and Akthar (Sacha Dhawan), along with brain-challenged Rudge (Russell Tovey), who’s on the list because of his golfing ability–are torn between their old devotion to Hector and the seductive sophistries of Irwin.
But that’s not the only crisis in the mix. Hector, though married to some unseen woman, is a closeted homosexual, whose habit of groping his young charges while giving them rides on his motorbike they’ve long learned to take in stride but becomes a major problem when it’s reported to the headmaster. His forced resignation looms unless someone intervenes.
The sort of campus drama represented by “The History Boys” isn’t particularly new–in many ways it echoes such varied pieces as “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “Child’s Play” (the Robert Marasco play filmed in 1972, not the later devil-doll series) and “Dead Poets Society” as well as “Chips.” And though Bennett’s dialogue is often witty, its cleverness often comes across as highly contrived, especially in the mouths of supposed eighteen-year olds. (Some of the lines that get the biggest laughs, moreover, are actually borrowed. When Rudge says “History is just one f**king thing after another,” for example, he’s offering nothing more than a cruder version of a sentiment variously attributed to such disparate figures as Herbert Butterfield and Hnry Ford.) That’s probably less problematic on the stage, where such overwriting is often a virtue, but on the screen its synthetic character is accentuated. The same is true of the final sequence, in which the futures of boys and teachers is revealed in a very theatrical stroke that doesn’t make the cinematic transition very easily.
The transfer is hard on the cast, too. Old pros like Griffiths and de la Tour have little difficulty making the change, but Merrison chews the scenery mercilessly, and the younger performers still seem to be playing to the rafters (and reciting their lines with over-practiced efficiency for the most part). That’s a sign that director Nicholas Hytner, who staged the play both in London and New York, hasn’t really re-thought the piece for the screen; despite his moving it into “real” settings and a few outdoor locations and encouraging cinematographer Andrew Dunn to keep the camera in motion, “The History Boys” still feels quite stagebound.
That doesn’t mean the picture isn’t moderately enjoyable, just that it’s not the remarkable example of dramaturgy the play’s many awards would suggest. (One may also feel a bit queasy about the way in which it simply disposes of the fact of Hector’s sexual conduct with the boys, as if what amounts to mild molestation were nothing more than a harmless eccentricity.) But overall this is an intelligent but hardly momentous recycling of an old formula; and as such it’s mostly amusing but surprisingly conventional–and ephemeral.