December 10, 2006

MOVIES: The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, 2006)

It's 1983, and a group of eight young men are being prepared for Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams. Their two principal teachers bring very different philosophies of education. Hector (Richard Griffiths) believes in knowledge for its own sake, and his "General Studies" classes include memorization of Hardy's poetry, singing Rodgers & Hart ballads, and performing classic movie scenes. Irwin (Steven Campbell Moore) believes that what you know isn't nearly as important as how you show off what you know, and urges the boys to take contrarian positions for their own sake, because being memorable will impress the judges more than being right.

Alan Bennett's screenplay is adapted from his stage play, and the entire original cast is on hand for the film version. The dialogue is that sort of terribly witty, terribly clever, terribly bon mot-laden stuff that can play well on stage, but comes off as too clever by half on screen. Everyone's so damned busy trading sub-Wildean quips that there's not much time for actual character development. The boys in the class get one character trait each: the jock, the black kid, the fat kid, the Muslim. (There is one kid who gets to be gay and Jewish.)

There are a few scenes that go beyond superficial glibness -- Hector and one of his students discuss a poem by Hardy; a classroom debate about the meaning of the Holocaust (and what it means to study the Holocaust) -- but they are rare, and the movie is generally content to skim along the surface, dropping cheeky punchlines in place of character development. We don't get to know anyone well enough to care about any of them, and the movie's final five minutes are a conceit that might have been effective on stage, but is a disaster on screen. Not recommended.


Reel Fanatic said...

After reading so many glowing reviews of this one, I'm glad to find someone who agrees that the transition from stage to screen was more than rocky ... I don't think the actors changed their delivery one bit, and it really hurt the movie

Keith said...

I think Richard Griffiths made the transition more successfully than the rest of the cast, because (a) Hector is supposed to be a larger-than-life personality, and (b) he's the only member of the cast with significant movie experience.

mary_m said...

I stumbled onto your blog while looking for a review of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Thanks for the tip - I'm about halfway through and absolutely love it!

-a fellow Los Angeles librarian

Keith said...

Glad to hear you're enjoying the book, and welcome to the blog!