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Thursday, November 23, 2006

The History Boys - Movie Review


The History Boys is not just a film based on the successful British National Theatre stage play that also transferred to Broadway this year (and swept the Tony Awards winning in 6 categories including Best Play), it is essentially the exact same production with the same cast intact and same director at the helm. In fact, they filmed this film version in between the second encore run in London and their World Tour that ended in New York.

Now, first up, I actually did see the Broadway production and enjoyed it immensely even though there were things that went way over my head. However I was excited to see the movie so that I could understand it more (and maybe understand some of the dialogue through some of the thick British accents which I figure is less clear on a live stage). Plus, I wanted to verify that I wasn't being an elitist by liking a "smart" play or if I was just joining the bandwagon and pretending to understand it all (much like Copenhagen which I'm still not sure if I got, really liked or was totally lost).

So yes, Alan Bennett's The History Boys is a theatre play that is essentially filmed in real locations (in that typical realness England they tend to film in that I love so much) and presented as a film. The acting and the dialogue spoken is sometimes too theatre-speak, which might oppose its' realistic setting, however, this didn't bother me much after the first 15 minutes when I got used to it.

The History Boys follows a group of eight boys, after the A-levels, who have the greatest chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge, and do an extra semester at school to train for the entrance exam/interviews. Leading them off is Hector (a mesmerizing Richard Griffiths (Uncle Dursley in the Harry Potter movies)) who teaches the boys "General Studies", and teaches them through life, living, and the art of words and poetry. Hector is as one might say, teaching without a grande plan about the grande plan of life. He is also somewhat questionable in his after-school activities with the boys on his motorbike where Hector always cops a feel, an issue that is fascinatingly underplayed since the boys sort of do it as an honourable duty for the erotic transfer of knowledge (as Hector says).

The headmaster decides to bring in outside help, to aid in polishing up the boys. They may be whip ass smart but they are crass (and hilariously energetic and frisky bunch to watch), or at least too crass for Oxford and Cambridge as he sees it. In comes Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore in beautifully nuanced portrait of a careful man) who is the direct opposite of Hector. Irwin teaches the boys information pertinent to helping them get into the schools, and thus starts a slight battle between the theories of teaching, but in a bigger sense, the battle between the theories on how to approach and live life.

The boys are a joyous bunch, with Samuel Barnett as Posner being the heart of the show as the little gay Jew boy from Sheffield whose life is basically fucked (his words, not mine). Dakin (the dashing Dominic Cooper) is the confident and suave dark haired boy that Posner (and Irwin) is in love with. Scripps (Jamie Parker, possibly my fave of the boys) is the piano playing religious boy who uses religion as a crutch to avoid doing anything possibly devious or thrilling, yet doesn't embody the typical religious freak caricature often portrayed in liberal minded movies. There's also Rudge (Russell Tovey), lone long-shot of the bunch who is more attuned to playing football than speaking of Sartre, but is determined (in a way) nonetheless. The other boys just fill out the background and the other pigeonholes (the Black one, the Muslim one, the Fat one, and Lockwood, the remaining White boy), but it's still enjoyable to watch these boys play off one another in their mile-a-minute word plays.

Finally, there is Frances De La Tour (another Harry Potter alum who played Madame Maxine) as the lone female voice in the bunch who commands the screen any time she is on. Her hilarious and impassioned speech about the females role in history should alone nab her an Oscar nomination (if the Academy actually did the right thing, which they don't (see Crash)).

There was a bit more to the ending of the theatrical play, which tied in the similarities between Posner and Irwin characters only at different points of the same life. The film only briefly alluded to it in the epilogue (since much of the 2.5 hour length of the play had to be cut to accommodate film length) and I missed it dearly, but overall, the film flew by without any notable omissions from the stage play leaving much of the wit and humour intact.

Despite all the literature speak that blew right over my head (I got a Masters Degree for essentially drawings lines on paper, not reading and writing), the film still felt joyously funny and had some nice emotional moments that help you invest in some of the characters (if not all). There are plenty of great lines, theories about life, literature and of course, how we read, interpret and remember history, all coming from a standout group of actors. I'd hate to use Dead Poets Society (which I do love) as a reference because they really are not similar, since The History Boys is much more subtle and witty, though a little more calculated as well.

9/10 or A- (I swear to god that I usually give out other grades as well)

1 comment:

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