The History Boys Review: Has Many Lessons to Learn
by Alex Billington
December 14, 2006
The History Boys is yet another stage-to-screen adaptation that uses a technique evocative of 2005's The Producers and Rent films - the same actors and the same director as in the stage version. Its strengths are an immensely clever and whimsical script with shrewd dialogue being slammed at you from every direction, but its weakness comes in presenting an understandable, coherent, and enjoyable version of a play on screen. It steps much too far out of the bounds of good cinema; I think I would have much rather seen the play on a stage.
The History Boys is set in Yorkshire, England in 1983, and centers around a handful of boys in their final year of high school. The boys represent a rather interesting and eclectic mix: there's one who's gay, another who loves sports more than school, and another who is the valedictorian but who acts more like the class bully. Nevertheless, they're all brilliant students who are particularly apt scholars of history and the French language. When news circulates that they have a chance at getting into Oxford and Cambridge, the headmaster (Clive Merrison) hires a young Oxford graduate (Stephen Campbell Moore) to temporarily teach the kids for the "big test" and make them more well rounded students and optimum choices for acceptance, all while intruding upon their favorite History teacher's (Richard Griffiths) class time.
Once the exposition is over with, the plot of The History Boys is revealed to be less about academia and much more about homosexuality and pedophilia, though not exclusively so or too much to dull interest. The script, taken straight from the play, spends most of its time in classrooms reciting epically long monologues and arguments between kids and the headmaster or the new teacher, Irwin. The very harsh British accents notwithstanding, much of what's spoken is too cerebral, too verbose, and too rapidly delivered to actually be coherent. Although such moments would be great on stage, in this film they take away from what is an otherwise interesting story about these kids.
The film is very hip to British pop culture, with numerous '80s rock songs throughout, and very intellectual, with poignant poetry found in nearly every scene. Those two points alone should give anyone a solid idea what to expect going in. There's even a metaphor about relationships and sex in relation to war in history. The focus of the film is purely on the linguists and dialogue in order to drive the story and does not call on any physical or visual imagery at all; this is great on stage, but ineffective on film. The film winds down by telling a lengthy story instead of ending when it should have. Although it gets into the lives of the students and teachers well, it is not as deeply gripping as a film like this should have been.
History Boys does feature some incredible performances from the same cast as the theatrical play. Rudge (Russell Tovey), who is the one with the most troubles and breaks the most bounds, also stands out the most. He's supported strongly by Posner (Samuel Barnett), an incredibly talented actor and singer who plays the homosexual boy, and Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who is the cigarette-smoking, sporty, attractive guy you don't want to mess with. The rest of the boisterous cast of students have amazing chemistry, but all are still acting only on the stage and not for the camera.
Although The History Boys was great linguistically, there's not much more found in its classrooms and hallways. It was not a decisive winner and really could have been adapted much more appropriately. The musical pieces often performed by Posner (Samuel Barnett), or the entire class, are quickly passed and forgotten when they should be heralded as the magical moments of realization and expression. The History Boys is better left untouched in its natural on-stage format, and not converted to the screen as a confusing and poorly directed movie.