What was evidently innovative on stage has become turgid and rote onscreen: Nicolas Hytner‘s big-screen adaptation of Alan Bennett‘s wildly praised, Tony-winning “The History Boys” is, as will be noted even in positive reviews, saddled with clumsy musical cues, dreadful montages of frolicking, and overtly sentimental efforts to “open it up” for the cinema. But putting aside the obvious, there are more reasons to dredge up why this doesn’t work on film, where isolated shots and close-ups of the actors detract from the conception of the classroom as a solitary entity, and the very Written, sing-song-y rhythm of the dialogue, when not bouncing from one voice to another onstage, just seems downright obnoxious.
Basically, Bennett’s vision of one grammar-school class full of smart, unruly boys in the early Eighties in Sheffield, and by extension the promises, limitations, and hypocrisies of the education system itself, can only work when the boys represent a monolithic statement, a single conglomeration of bodies. Each boy is just a cog in a wheel, and the film tries to grant each boy a supremacy he cannot withstand. Thus, “The History Boys” is lopsided: Hytner’s attempts to make the boys’ situations more accessible to a moviegoing audience just make them seem stranger, and the blind spots of the work seem especially obvious in close-up, where the only Arab and black students are barely given any dialogue or recognizable character traits.
Larger-than-life Richard Griffiths is the only actor who emerges intact here, perhaps because his general studies teacher Hector is the only true individual as written–but the precarious construction of his character seems hugely evident on film. His furtive groping of his students’ crotches is meant to invoke a teacher-pupil tradition that reaches way back to the Greeks, a dubious position intended to challenge the viewer’s preconceptions, yet he is treated by his students and the filmmakers alike as merely adorably outmoded. Likewise, “straight,” sloe-eyed class stud Dakin’s willingness to go down on any teacher for a little extra guidance strikes me as being as much of a gay male fantasy as the class’s utter acceptance of delicate, pale Posner’s gradual coming out. Well, of course, we’re talking about a class of fresh young boys who like to while away the minutes performing old standards like Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched” for their grateful teacher. Let’s face it, this is as much a wish fulfillment for theater queens as a sobering look at the British education system, the limits of standardized testing, or the basic tenets of what constitutes knowledge.
The original London and Broadway cast has been graciously reassembled here, but they seem a little too fixed to their roles (and impressed with themselves) for any of this to fly as spontaneous filmic naturalism. In fact, the whole project feels self-congratulatory and entitled; when blown up to a conventional narrative, the basic trajectory here–will these privileged kids get into Oxford or Cambridge?—carries about as much dramatic urgency as attending a high school college fair.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]