The History Boys, as most who attend it will probably know, began its life as a play by Alan Bennett, and won more or less every Tony Award that can be given. That success is not replicated in the film version, which from the very beginning is clearly a story that works far better on the stage than on the screen.
It isn’t that The History Boys is a bad movie, or poorly acted, or any of those criticisms, but that it simply doesn’t work. Individually speaking, each performance is very good, and the script is well-written, but it is well-written for the theatre, and not for the screen: in a movie theatre, one expects a certain level of realism, both in dialogue and in action, and as such plays and musicals, which can easily dispense with that realism, do not usually translate well onto the screen.
The History Boys follows the story of eight secondary school seniors in Britain trying to successfully achieve admission into Oxford and Cambridge, and the efforts of their teachers to get them in. All of this, of course, is couched within the standard elements of a coming-of-age schoolroom story, as themes of sexual discovery and identity are also explored.
As noted above, the acting is for the most part very good – especially notable are Stephen Campbell Moore as the school’s new History teacher, Mr. Irwin, Richard Griffiths as the boys’ General Studies instructor, Hector, and Clive Merrison as the school Headmaster, in a spluttering and comic performance that provides much of the film’s comic relief. In terms of plot, Griffiths is the driving force, but The History Boys is nothing if not an ensemble piece, and without each actor giving a strong performance the film would not cohere at all.
The bottom line is that The History Boys is a little like Dead Poets’ Society, but not nearly as good, and you would be better off renting that movie then going to see this one. That said, even living in another country it gives one a refreshing perspective on what a ridiculous game the college admissions process is. If you have the option, though, skip the movie and go see the play.
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