As The History Boys filled the screen a lad pedaled his bicycle through a quaint English town to a bit of '40s-era swing, so I curled up in the flickering dark, anticipating a tale of plucky wartime Brits banding together for some scenic reason. Then, to my surprise, the infectious New Order classic "Blue Monday" kicked in, and after a scary flashback to the gruelingly dissonant Marie Antoinette I was transported to 1983, a Yorkshire high school, in which a swarm of jabbering young men were congratulating each other for being completely awesome. So much for my expectations.
If, like me, you are un-theatrically inclined, then you might not know about playwright Alan Bennett's The History Boys, the story of a group of gifted students and the educators who inspired them, which came barreling onto Broadway earlier this year after a smash London run and won a record six Tony Awards (the most since 1949's Death of a Salesman). Between the London and New York engagements the cast and crew made the film version, no doubt encouraged by the fact that Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner had once before made a much-praised jump from stage to screen with 1995's The Madness of King George. And they're mostly successful again, with only the play's Anglo-centricity and staginess working against it. As for its well-trod subject matter, The History Boys actually has something fresh to say.
The film opens as eight boys are readying for the exams that could grant them coveted spots at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the interactions between themselves and their teachers make it obvious that they're a tight-knit and favored crew. At first the largely pasty and pointy-faced kids are hard to keep straight, save for the three token (read: quite underdeveloped) black, Muslim, and chubby students, but two of them quickly stand out: the charming, manipulative Dakin (Dominic Cooper, a star in the making) and the sensitive (read: maybe gay) Posner, played by Samuel Barnett, the only History Boy with a Tony nomination.
The individuals in charge of tutoring these young men in history come at their jobs from very different angles. Middle-aged Hector (recognizable character actor Richard Griffiths) is the old-fashioned general studies teacher, not averse to swatting his students and rather keen on schooling them in torch songs and poetry. The kids accept his unorthodox style as well as his penchant for groping, a fact that the film at first disturbingly plays for laughs but which eventually becomes career-threatening. Mrs. Lintott (the flawless Frances de la Tour) is the affectionate voice of reason, even though she finally unloads on her students and colleagues with thoughts on how history is "a commentary on the continuing incapabilities of men."
The new instructor is Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore in a deceptively subtle role), a forward thinker who challenges the boys with novel ways of deconstructing the past, and the plot is set into motion upon his arrival. As Irwin and Hector try to figure out a way to coexist peacefully while they war for the hearts and minds of their students, ladies' man Dakin finds himself inexplicably drawn to the seemingly unimpressed Irwin, and Posner grapples with his possible homosexuality, terrified of a Hector-like life with the closet door open just a crack.
Bennett adapted his play for the screen version, and this is where the transition from footlights to film a gets little choppy. Rapid-fire stage dialogue (except Mamet-speak) almost always seems unnatural on celluloid, as do a play's pauses for crowd reaction that often make their way to the screen, presumably so as not to disrupt the actors' flow. It's a minor qualm that falls away as the film settles in and the viewer gets used to the rhythm. And it's refreshing to come upon a soundtrack that feels no need to show off its obscure knowledge of music. Besides New Order, much-played songs from the Clash ("Rock the Casbah") and the Smiths ("This Charming Man") lend a kind of shared-history feel to things.
The cast's thorough entrenchment in their roles allows for some extraordinary performances. Coming off of stage honors on both sides of the Atlantic, Griffiths is the Oscar-worthy standout, with a third-act breakdown that is heartwrenching in its openness, tearfully questioning the life that led up to his inappropriate behavior then calmly accepting himself when he realizes everyone else already does. The ultimate resolution to the molestation issue as well as a separate student-teacher flirtation is a little too convenient, but the film's true focus is summed up in the final scene, a cleverly shot testament to how teachers can shape the destinies of their students.
The History Boys (R), directed by Nicholas Hytner, opens Friday, December 22, at Little Theatres.