A surprise hit play in New York and London, The History Boys won high marks as a sparkling alternative to the sentimental, black-and-white portrait of education in Dead Poets Society. Playwright Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner reunite with the stage actors for the film adaptation, but the big surprise is how The History Boys proves nearly as sentimental and black-and-white as Peter Weir's 1989 drama starring Robin Williams.
The title characters are eight bright schoolboys in Northern England, spending their final term preparing for entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge. The performances charm, the dialogue sparkles, the soundtrack of early-1980s Brit-pop jangles. Battle lines form, however, between Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a cocky young teacher focused on teaching boys to write attention-getting essays, and Hector (Richard Griffiths), a veteran educator with what Americans would call a more "holistic" approach. His classes include play-acting and seemingly silly games that have made his students erudite and sharp.
Fond of plump, tweedy Hector, the students indulge his tendency for motorcycle rides -- and copping quick feels. We can accept the idea that these particular teenagers, all about 18, take Hector's inappropriate actions in stride, especially given that the film takes place in 1983, when sexual transgressions tended to be more hush-hush. But beyond the characters, the movie itself comes close to apologizing for what could be called Mark Foley behavior, given Hector's martyr-like treatment.
With their different philosophies, Hector amounts to an idealistic hedgehog and Irwin a more cynical fox. The cartoonishly nasty headmaster supports Irwin, so you know he's on the wrong side of the angels. The History Boys can strike a chord with American education's emphasis on standardized tests, which values "teaching to the test" over actual learning. One pupil sums up Hector vs. Irwin as the difference between being "thoughtful" and "smart." Ultimately, however, the film sets up a false choice between Hector's personal passion for learning and Irwin's original thinking that challenges conventional wisdom. Can't a well-rounded schooling include both?
The History Boys shows enormous sensitivity to the school experience, from both the student perspective and that of the teacher. It's enormously frustrating that a film so rich and intellectual should be so unpersuasive, especially with its sappy conclusion. Maybe The History Boys needed more of the Irwin touch.