LITTLE ROCK Early on in The History Boys, set in the 1980s in a provincial school in the north of England, an aging tutor called Hector (Richard Griffiths) takes issue with the rubric the headmaster has assigned to his class for aspiring applicants to Cambridge and Oxford.
"On our timetable, our esteemed headmaster gives these periods the dubious title of 'General Studies,'" Hector says. "I will let you in on a secret, boys. There is no such thing as 'General Studies.' General Studies is a waste of time. Knowledge is not general. It is specific, and it has nothing to do with getting on."
But cynical Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), an up-andcoming teacher brought in to prepare the boys for their entrance examinations, doesn't subscribe to this theory. Irwin favors glibness and the ingenious employment of facts to buttress novel arguments designed to draw attention to the students' technique. If Hector believes knowledge is its own reward, Irwin sees it as a meansto an end - a flashy way of camouflaging an essential intellectual vacancy.
"History nowadays is not a matter of conviction," he declares. "It's a performance. It's entertainment."
Likewise, The History Boys is more about performance than conviction - though its heart is with Hector, its use of epigrammatic statements and verbal fluency is distinctly Irwinesque. While the film crackles with ideas, it's really just about an old teacher who's beloved by his charges despite some very obvious character flaws. It's a small story, really, gentle and sweet, made all the more charming for its faith in itspresumptive audience. It's heartening to come across a popular entertainment (which is exactly all that The History Boys aspires to be) that doesn't stoop to explain its allusions, that's not pitched at the dull normal demographic.
Wisely trimmed to a brisk 89 minutes, the film gets its point across and allows us to enjoy Griffith's tremendous performance as flawed and somewhatpathetic Hector, whose ineffectual gropings are taken in stride by his indulgent charges.
Still, what works on stage often feels artificial on screen, and The History Boys never quite achieves escape velocity. While its fidelity to the play might at first blush seem a virtue, in truth it never fully becomes a movie, only a filmed version of the play. The schoolboy ensemble is too old to still be prepping for Oxbridge (they also seem little more than the standard deck of scholastic stereotypes - the jock and the Lothario, the gay one and the ethnic). What might be forgiven on the stylized arena of the stage looks odd and wrong when plopped down on location. And the rhythms of the dialogue seem too calibrated and calculated to pass for naturalistic speech -the practiced cast actually works against the suspension of disbelief in this case, for even bright kids mumble and slump.
Yet if The History Boys isn't quite a movie, it is wonderful in its own way, as a slightly abridged and easily consumed version of the Alan Bennett play which won the 2005 Olivier Award for Best New Play and the 2006 Tony Award for Best Play. Because most of us missed it in the West End and on Broadway, the film is a welcome compromise. We might not have the full experience, but we are able to apprehend the intellectual playfulness of the piece; we get the drift of Bennett's generous wit and interesting mind.
MovieStyle, Pages 48 on 03/09/2007