THE HISTORY BOYS (Nicholas Hytner, 2006)
Having successfully completed their A level exams, the students in THE HISTORY BOYS turn to preparing for the arduous admissions process to England's top universities. Cutler Grammar School's headmaster (Clive Merrison) wants his star pupils to be accepted by Oxford and Cambridge, so he brings in a pliable teacher to get them to focus on the task at hand rather than advancing their knowledge.
Young, thin as a rail, and fixated on the result rather than the process, newcomer Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) stands in stark contrast to Hector (Richard Griffiths), a corpulent old professor who stresses the importance of learning regardless of its daily utility. The boys adore Hector's freewheeling lessons, but they find more of that time is being pinched so that Irwin can inculcate them in how to play the admissions game to their advantage.
Hector's dissatisfaction with reduced instructional time takes a back seat when word reaches the administration that he was seen touching one of his student's gentials while giving the boy a ride home on his motorcycle.
Confirming everything that Morrissey and Belle & Sebastian songs would have you believe about what boys do at British schools, THE HISTORY BOYS takes place in a universe in which homosexuality and a teacher's wayward hands are no big deal. Although there are no indications that the film exists as a fantasy, it can be viewed in no other way. As enlightened as students might believe themselves to be today, it seems unlikely that every teenage male in a class would be gay or curious, let alone be so open in 1983.
The main trouble spot for THE HISTORY BOYS, though, is the laissez faire attitude, if not outright endorsement, regarding an instructor inappropriately fondling students and the pupils' unquestioning acceptance and implied enjoyment of it. Hector's students accept his grabby-handed motorcycle rides as though it's their duty in return for the education he's giving them, sort of like a rite of passage. In the end THE HISTORY BOYS wonders what all the fuss was about and winks at Hector's indiscretions as if they were no more than harmless pranks.
It's too bad that the film loses its way because THE HISTORY BOYS asks some interesting questions about what to learn and how to use it. Should education be pursued for its own sake, or is it only of value if it can be used to further oneself professionally? Proficiency tests and school funding are the hot topics in today's American educational system because it's felt that the exams serve no other purpose than satisfying bureaucratic requirements and that the money should be applied to teaching practical knowledge over learning that provides cultural enrichment. Is there value in taking contrarian stances in academics because the novelty is more likely to get one noticed, and is it intellectually dishonest? Like the best teachers, THE HISTORY BOYS puts such questions out there for the viewers to gnaw on and draw their own conclusions.
Director Nicholas Hytner works hard to make the stage play seem more kinetic on screen, whipping the camera around the classroom in an attempt to add motion to a script that demands stasis. In a middlebrow, theatrical way, Alan Bennett's dialogue is sharp and consistently amusing, which aids the film through its slow portions. THE HISTORY BOYS falters badly in a plot development near the end. Along with its questionable approval of the teacher's actions, the film is unable to recover. That's how it can go. A sterling career--or, in this case, a solid film--can be undone by one or two bad lapses in judgment.