Plays do not always make the transition well from stage to screen they can come off too talky or stagnant, mannerisms that work well on a far-off stage sometimes appearing stilted on a big screen.
Fortunately, thanks to the rambunctiously energetic performances and Nicholas Hynter
's equally jaunty direction, The History Boys looks right at home on screen; what poses a larger problem is whether it will translate as fluidly from Britain to America. Article continues below
Though it's set in a Yorkshire boys' prep school in the mid-1980s, it's a mistake to tag The History Boys as a Dead Poets Society with accents the beloved, poetry-spouting teacher here is a obese nearly-retiree with a habit of "appreciatively" groping his favorite students. And the rebellious, upstart young teacher is not here to bring a passion for learning. His job is to show the lads how to blow enough smoke at admissions committees to get scholarships at top colleges.
The eight boys are part of the "Oxbridge set" who tested well enough that they have a shot of getting into Oxford and Cambridge, so they are cramming for one more term to ace their entrance exams and interviews. The high strung headmaster is virtually apoplectic at the prospect of getting his boys into such prestigious schools, so he brings in a hotshot new teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore
) to raise their scores.
Irwin clashes immediately, of course, with everyone so comfortably set in their ways. All the students are already utterly devoted to their lecherous professor Hector (Richard Griffiths
), who teaches Auden, showtunes, and Now, Voyager in his hodge-podge lessons. Irwin perseveres, however, and the movie follows the predictable path of the young lads gaining some life-learnin' to go with the book-learnin'.
The History Boys is based on Alan Bennett's play, which ran in London for nearly a year, spent some more time on Broadway, and cleaned up at the Tonys. The entire cast is back for the film, Bennett did the adaptation, and Hynter directed both play and film. The long shared history shows through clear the timing of the interactions is so impeccable, the dialogue so crisp, that it feels simply organic.
Despite the well-practiced ensemble dynamic, it's clear who landed the juicier parts Griffiths gets the glory for his haphazard bon vivant wastrel, but it's the more subtle members of the team that make the movie sparkle, such as Frances de la Tour's weary, deadpan contribution as the film's lone, wise female presence. It's also a sharp script with excellent lines that keep even a staid and oft-retold story like this one from seeming too trite. To its credit, the film resists getting too twee and preposterous until the very end.
But it's also so very, very British even when it's funny (and it often is), it's so sedate and stiff-upper-lip that the jokes can slip by unnoticed. Of course, that could also be because the jokes are often derisive comments about the quality of Suffolk, for instance, or Northumberland, and their amusing nuances often sail right over the heads of a Yankee audience. All of the film, though, is equally unflappable. Hector's penchant for his students, one boy's well-known obsession for his lothario classmate, sexuality in general all of it is treated with the same philosophical nonchalance. While the blasι attitude keeps The History Boys from veering too far into the sentimental if only barely it also keeps any of it from seeming like a really big deal.
The History Boys offers an ably immortalized version of a simple coming-of-age en masse drama that works nearly as well on screen as it would on stage. Whether the benevolent view of inappropriate teacher/student relationships, for instance, or the jokes made at the expense of the decidedly British social class system will fare as well in the U.S., remains to be seen. One thing's for certain, though sizeable theatre audiences are almost never the same numbers at the movie theatre.