The maverick American director Nicholas Ray once said, “If it’s all in the script, why make the film?” A case in point might be this workmanlike stage-to-screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play, which played to packed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Reuniting the writer (Bennett), director (Hytner) and cast of the theatrical original, The History Boys is primarily a film of interiors, with the dramatic focus on classroom interactions between teachers and students. Crammed with pithy one-liners (a grope is described by Hector as “more appreciative than investigatory”), references to and quotations from the likes of Housman, Auden and Larkin, the script explores the purpose and value of education, by contrasting two very different approaches to teaching. On the one hand, there’s the old-fashioned humanist Hector, an advocate of learning for learning’s sake, not as preparation for passing tests. On the other, there’s moral relativist Irwin, encouraging his charges to turn questions on their heads and find new ‘angles’, all to stand out from other candidates.
The boys themselves, surprisingly uninterested in pop music, football or going to the pub, are sketched as types: the seducer, the tubby clown, the lonely homosexual, the Christian, the rugby player... Together, they resemble less a group of bright teenagers than a slick theatrical troupe, knocking out Gracie Fields songs and impersonations of characters from Brief Encounter .
The History Boys is at its most moving in the quieter, more reflective moments, such as Hector’s heartfelt analysis of Hardy poem ‘Drummer Hodge’ to the shy Posner (Samuel Barnett). Or when Irwin admits to Hector his attraction to one of the boys and his colleague explains how over the years he has become inured to such unrequited feelings. Which of the scholars gets into Oxbridge seems far less important than our awareness of lives diminished by suppressed desires.