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The History Boys

Thought-provoking and well-written, Alan Bennett's Tony-winning play about life, love, and education in 1980s Yorkshire jumps to the big screen in The History Boys.


Mixing the boys-will-be-boys camaraderie of Dead Poets Society with the veddy British tang of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The History Boys follows eight working-class English grammar school students vying for competitive scholarships to Cambridge and Oxford in 1983. Challenged and mentored by two very different teachers--quixotic, larger-than-life knowledge-hound Hector (Richard Griffiths) and focused, competitive strategist Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore)--the class grapples with questions about everything from their sexuality to the causes of World War II. The film takes place over the course of the boys' final term, as they prepare for the crucial exam that will determine the direction their lives will take--and their teachers are forced to deal with personal truths that don't belong in the classroom.


The stars of The History Boys are exceptionally at home in their roles, and for good reason: The core cast members all starred in the hit stage version, first in London and then on Broadway. Some of the boys' parts are flashier than the others--Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett are clear stand-outs as brashly sexy smart-aleck Dakin and wry, lovelorn Posner, respectively--but all are integral members of the group. On the other side of the lectern, Griffiths (Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter movies) and Campbell Moore are both outstanding. Campbell Moore gradually reveals Irwin's underlying insecurity and vulnerability, while Griffiths' blustery Hector is simultaneously the best teacher you never had and the one you'd least want to put in charge of a roomful of eager young men. Their characters seem to be total opposites, but ultimately they find they have more in common than they suspected.


The movie was shot quickly during the six weeks between the play's London engagement and world tour, and it shows. Boom mikes are visible in several shots, and none of the filming is particularly artful. But The History Boys is much less about lighting and composition than it is about Bennett's sharp, insightful script. Some stage-to-film adaptations end up stilted and wordy, but director Nicholas Hytner and the cast do an excellent job of making even the movie's preachiest speeches seem organic. Sure, the boys can be pretty glib for 18-year-olds, but once you realize how well they've been educated, it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility. Plus, their droll wit helps The History Boys avoid the trap of sentimentalism that so many other ''inspirational teachers'' stories fall victim to. Even Hector, with his penchant for Hollywood melodrama, wouldn't want that.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.