Review: The History Boys [2006] - dir. Nicholas Hytner

A group of history pupils at a boys’ grammar school in Sheffield pursue a place at Oxford or Cambridge, where they are subjected to contrasting styles of teaching.

Adapted from Alan Bennett’s (THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE) immensely successful play of the same name, THE HISTORY BOYS focuses on the experiences of eight history students at a grammar school in northern England in the mid 1980s as they attempt to get a place at the top two universities in the country; Oxford and Cambridge.

The headmaster of the school is keen to send as many of his pupils to Oxbridge as possible and employs supply teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore, BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS) to teach them the tricks of trade concerning how to get into Oxford or Cambridge. This style of teaching is contrasted sharply with that of the boys’ eccentric and maverick English teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths, WITHNAIL AND I) and the facts and figures based teaching style of their history teacher Mrs Linnott (Frances De La Tour, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE).

THE HISTORY BOYS primarily focuses on the state of the education system in the 1980s and what the teenage boys learn about life, love and education along the way and succeeds in being a hugely entertaining film about growing up and the different approaches to life one can take.

It's very difficult to improve upon a successful play when you make it into a film. Even when it is done well (say, Sleuth or Little Shop of Horrors), it's still never quite as good as seeing it on stage. What Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner have tried to do here is to open up the emotional lives of the plays characters a bit more and make the feel more naturalistic.

The film is streets ahead of most 'education' movies in terms of ideas, intellect and sophistication (think IF for the 80s generation)...and still manages to return the humour from the original stage production. But the changes are interesting and not all are entirely welcome. Posner (Samuel Barnet playing the one character that resembles Bennett's schoolboy more than any of the others) ends up with a more optimistic future than he did in the play, surely sentimentality on Bennett's part, though this is offset by one of the other boys being killed by friendly fire in Iraq.

For me, most disappointingly of all, Russell Tovey's plain-speaking Rudge (my favourite character) doesn't get to sing It's a Sin at the end so gets to finish his schooldays on a note of regret, rather than personal triumph. Bizarrely, I hear this terrific scene has even been cut from the play now.

But aside from the petty niggles it's refreshing to see not only a faithful (enough) adaption of a great stage play, but also one that brings together the original stage cast and let's them discover more about the characters they created in the first place, but this time on a much bigger stage and with the ability for them to do it with a far more intimate portrayal.

Bennett will forever be L'enfant terrible of British theatre and television, much like a northern Ken Russell, but with less sex and more tea and biscuits of course...


Post a Comment