The History Boys

Brilliant theatre director Nicholas Hytner might run the National Theatre but he just doesn’t get it about filmmaking. Brilliant film director he most definitely ain’t in this unimaginative screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s multi-award winning stage play.

A group of bright grammar school boys are prepared for their Oxford Entrance Exams by two very contrasted teachers – one, Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) is all for the modern science of exam cramming whilst the other, Hector (Richard Griffiths) thinks education should be a bit more rounded and that a bit of harmless crotch groping is all part of the learning process. Do they get into Oxford? Do we care?

They say:

Channel 4 Film: “You’d expect quality anyway with a cast list dripping with this much thespian holiness but the screen is fair bulging with exemplary performances.”

Guardian: “It is an odd, faintly directionless experience all in all, but watchable and often lifted out of the ordinary by the genial, gentle Griffiths.”

We say:

This is the movie of a triumph – not sadly a triumph of a movie. Straight from the award-winning London and New York runs of Alan Bennett’s powerful classroom drama comes this film which reunites the theatrical cast and its stage director, Nicholas Hytner.

Very nice for them to get back together again but, for the rest of us it’s very much “lovely play, pity about the film”.

Richard Griffiths, mega-sized and mega-talented, provides enough reasons to go down to your local cinema – if you didn’t see the play, that is. He fills the screen in more ways than one – his incredible bulk demands your attention and once he has it he doesn’t disappoint. No one else can make seediness quite so charismatic or sexual abuse seem quite so harmless.

Surprisingly, for such a larger-than-life character, it is his quietest moments that really impress. None more so than the film’s stand out scene when Hector, in danger of losing his job after being spotted with his hand in a boy’s crotch, conducts a moving seminar with a young sixth-former (Samuel Barnett) whose own sexuality is only just beginning to dawn. With a muted voice and a wide pallet of facial expressions, Griffiths turns a lesson on a poem by Thomas Hardy into a cry from the heart.

Quiet moments of intensity are what Nicholas Hytner does best in the theatre too but sadly the rest of Griffith’s performance is less well served.

On stage his big moments filled the theatre, in the cinema, they are not brought into line enough with the different requirements of the camera lens and so they are exposed as theatrical gestures. Just too over the top to be believable.

Nick Hytner just doesn’t get this. In his film work the camera is merely recording theatrical performances in a more realistic setting than would be possible on stage. Nothing, of course, is less realistic than a load of actors declaiming their lines in the street.

Trying to turn the play into cinema, Hytner runs out of ideas very rapidly. The camera pans and zooms aimlessly never seeming to know where it should point; the lighting is dull so that the film quality is flat with very little depth of field. During dialogue scenes, close-ups are intercut as if they were news interviews and, just when you think the cinematography has ceased altogether, the film editor is allowed to let rip with that old cliché the montage sequence set to music.

The most filmic performance comes from Stephen Campbell Moore as the new teacher brought in to push the boys through their exams. He is allowed to hold back his performance so that his intensity registers for the lens not the back of the dress circle. Consequently his performance convinces where many of the others fail.

Early on in the film a caption tells us that the action takes place in 1983 and, as if to confirm this the soundtrack changes to Morrissey’s This Charming Man but the 80’s end there. The boys sing along to songs from the 30s and 40s to remind us that we are not only in Alan Bennett’s own school days but we are in his familiarly gloomy world of disappointment and sexual frustration in a Northern English no man’s land.

Richard Griffith’s Hector drums into his pupils the importance of the subjunctive tense – the “if I were” or “it might be” tense – to encourage the boys to think the unthinkable and to find an imaginative way out of their dull surroundings but, like all Bennett’s characters, he himself is doomed to disappointment and to dwell on the might have been.

We too are forced to dwell on the might have been. If only this great play could have been made into a great film.

Cert 15

Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, France de la Tour, Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper

Nicholas Hytner

Running time:
109 minutes

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