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Perhaps the greatest lesson taught isn’t one chronicling history.
In the screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning “The History Boys” director Nicholas Hytner tests that theory with a group of seven unruly, brainy boys vying for entry to Oxford and Cambridge in the early ’80s. Witty factually-focused Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), who’s tired of teaching “centuries of masculine ineptitude,” and bubbly general studies teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose lessons include French and a fetish for compound adjectives, holds the students’ success in their hands.
For Hector, that’s a little too literal. The semi-closeted gay and married Hector (despite signs like Rita Hayworth pin-ups plastered on his classroom walls) cops a feel while the Yorkshire schoolboys take turns hitching a ride on the back of his motorcycle. Not that this fazes them. In fact, the boys are humored by it, and seem almost gracious to appease Hector’s “sad fuck” attitude and his longing to find himself.
The grammar school’s homophobic perfection-driven headmaster (Clive Merrison), in seeing the lack of preparation from Hector’s unfocused, often-unpredictable class, enlists the goal-oriented teachings of Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young Oxford history graduate. To polish their academic drive for the elite university interviews, Irwin urges the students to interpret history as performance arts. As he calls it, giving them “an edge.”
Irwin also happens to be gay. But he’s more forthright about it, and his orientation becomes a tool for students like Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who uses it to his advantage. Irwin’s also much younger than Hector and, though he tries resisting, becomes a rock for a few of the boys.
In a poignant scene, Posner (Samuel Barnett), one of his students, admits to him that he’s gay and in love with Dakin. He questions whether it’ll pass, though he doesn’t want it to.
“I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. I live in Sheffield,” he confesses. “I’m fucked!”
Posner, who’s not macho by any means (his flamboyant performance of “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” in front of his classmates was a dead giveaway even to the gaydar-challenged), is comfy skipping in his gay glory and, surprisingly, receives no slack from fellow students.
“The History Boys,” based on Alan Bennett’s London and Broadway smash, keeps pace because it bristles with the kind of wicked wit (one student compares an artist’s rendering of a naked woman’s breasts to “ice cream scooped tits”) and charm almost void in recent cinema. While the film doesn’t always mask its theatrical origins, the pitch-perfect performances, notably from Griffiths who balances heartbreak and humor, still radiate on the silver screen (No wonder since the stage players reprise their roles for the film). The boys – from Dakin’s seductive charm to Posner’s longing for him – bounce off of each other so well that there’s no doubting their long-term bonds.
Sharply written, the drama challenges viewers with the professors’ hybrid forms of teaching to consider the qualities of education on multiple levels. The basic story, with doses of “Dead Poet’s Society,” may be predictable, but it’s the curveballs, especially the tragic-turn finale, that fortify “The History Boys” as more than a humdrum history teaching.
It’s a lesson in living.