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Old 17th Oct 2006, 11:28   #1
amner
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Default The History Boys

No.

If ever there were a case for saying that people are talking out of their backsides, it's the undiminished praise flowing towards the film version of Alan "national treasure" Bennett's hit play, The History Boys.

Following the fortunes of a bunch of bright, precocious Northern lads trying to get into Oxford and Cambridge, we are chucked into the Class of '83 (my year for getting out of school and into Uni, incidentally) and shown just how clever these boys are.

There's a lot of verbal dexterity here, and then some subverting of the form (their form, that is, not the cinematic form, god no) before they all come good in the end.

And it's terrible. It's just so flat and uninspiring. Nicholas Hytner's direction - he directed the stage play - is tepid and tedious and looks like the sort of thing the Children's Film Foundation were doing back when Keith Chegwin was a child star.

I'm pleased to say we don't quite go down the sickly "O Captain, my Captain" route, but this is all pretty unrealistic stuff. I'm sorry, Bennett aficionados, but it is. If some boy at my school had sung Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered in a stirring falsetto to the class hunk he'd have got lamped, probably not acceptable, I know, but he would. That's not the point, I know, but after you've taken in the first example of just how smart and sensitive and endearingly wonderful these young snipes are meant to be, it all starts getting hugely irritating.

In the O&C interview practice the kids do, the famous quote that gets trotted out on the trailer, is when one of the boys is asked to define History, and he says it's "just one fucking thing after another". And so it is. One fucking thing after another, just plod plod plod it goes. Oh, a victory, oh a setback, oh a victory, big finish, blah.

The only point of true note is when Richard Griffiths's character - corpulent camp and tragic - discusses the Hardy poem Drummer Hodge with one of the boys. There's no attempt at cleverness, just two people who should be in harmony (the boy he is talking to is starting to recognise his own homosexuality) failing to connect. It's terribly affecting, but it's too little too late, and when that moment ended, so did any interest I had in the whole thing.

There are some funny lines, some neat quotes, but it's a drama that treads water almost all the way through, and it should be consigned to History.
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Old 17th Oct 2006, 11:40   #2
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Default Re: The History Boys

This seems to be the verdict of most people re the film. I think it probably translates very poorly into a film experience because I was one of those who really rated the theatre version when I saw it this time last year. In the theatre it didn't appear artificial and the setting was taken somewhat out of the historical frame of the early-mid-eighteies (weirdly enough for a play about history) and seemed to float between the years of Bennett's own sixth form experience and our own. I saw a lot of how my own school (which was grammar before they Comprehensivised it) would have handled these topics. I just get the impression (and agree) that it comes across as a load of pretentious rubbish on the screen, which it didn't on stage. The arguments about revisionism etc were more personal and immediate there.
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Old 17th Oct 2006, 12:10   #3
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Default Re: The History Boys

So, given that the play is coming to my town in the next couple of weeks, I should go for that instead of the film?

I agree with Col, in that rather than "undiminished praise flowing towards" the film version, the critical response has been extremely mixed. See the graphic on the Guardian site.

Someone on Newsnight Review said they didn't see the point of making a film version at all. May I suggest it's for the benefit of those who can't afford to, or won't get the opportunity to, see it in a theatre near them?

Philip French liked it anyway!

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Most films about schooldays are American and concerned with who'll take whom to the prom, who'll fix the school bully, who'll score the decisive touchdown. Few have much to do with education. Indeed only a couple come readily to mind - the Hollywood version of Emlyn Williams's The Corn is Green in which a Welsh miner's son is encouraged to go to Oxford by an inspirational schoolmistress, and of course Dead Poets Society. That's why the film version of Alan Bennett's The History Boys is special, though certainly not the only reason. It's been thoughtfully brought to the screen with its National Theatre cast intact and with the same director, Nicholas Hytner, who made his movie debut 12 years ago with The Madness of King George, based on another National Theatre play by Bennett.

After years of writing and performing sketches for the stage, radio and television, Bennett wrote his first play in 1968, the comedy Forty Years On, which used a minor public school as an image of Britain. Working through parody and pastiche, it reviewed the recent history of the country through a play staged by a rebellious new teacher in defiance of a hide-bound headmaster. The History Boys can be seen as a development of this prentice work. Though it's much more elaborately shaped, deeper, and even funnier, it's another state-of-the-nation play using a school as the setting, dealing with the same themes of education, history, class and national identity.


The year is 1983, the setting is now an all-boys grammar school in Yorkshire attended largely by working-class lads, and the piece concentrates on eight bright sixth-formers who have stayed on for an extra term preparing to sit Oxbridge scholarship exams in history. There are the merest glimpses of other pupils, and although in adapting the movie for the screen Bennett has briefly introduced a comic gym teacher straight out of Kes, and a dispirited teacher of art history, there are only four significant figures from the faculty. They're the snobbish headmaster (Clive Merrison), a geography graduate of Hull determined to put his school on the map by getting boys into Oxbridge; Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour), a sensible traditional history teacher who studied at Durham; Hector (Richard Griffiths), a brilliant, theatrical English master who went to Sheffield University and runs an unconventional general studies class; and Mr Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a Machiavellian recent history graduate brought in on a temporary basis to show the working-class kids how to present themselves and their ideas in a way that will impress (or deceive) Oxbridge dons.

There's no feeling of this being a filmed play (on the stage there was quite considerable use of video material), but the classroom remains central. Except for a couple of deft montages (the boys going to Oxford and Cambridge, the fateful letters from their chosen colleges arriving at their homes) and Hector riding his motorcycle, everything is pedagogically inclined. Though the year is 1983 there's no reference to the Falklands war, unemployment, Sheffield's dying steel industry or the rise of the SDP. But then the picture is as much about Bennett's boyhood and Blair's post-Thatcher world as about the Eighties, and there is a despairing coda set several decades later. In fact nothing deflects our attention from the movie's ideas and the central debates about what education is for, who owns history, and in a more general way how we are meant to conduct our lives. This is denser in the stage and radio versions, but Bennett has skilfully pared down the discussions and they remain substantial. In what other recent film has a poem been sensitively dissected the way Hardy's 'Drummer Hodge' is here by Hector and a pupil?

There is no doubt about where Bennett's sympathies lie, and the production designer, John Beard, has served him and Hytner well. The caricatured headmaster's study is packed with cups, shields and other trophies of his school's success. The sensible Mrs Lintott's history room has maps and dynastic charts on the wall. The general studies wall is covered higgledy-piggledy with hundreds of postcards of art ancient and modern and portraits of Wilde, Joyce, Orwell, Betjeman, Bette Davis, Jack Hulbert and numerous others, including several of Charles Laughton with whom the fat, gay, histrionic Hector evidently identifies. They reflect his mind, methods and ethos as do the endless quotations he swaps with his class, the games they play, the delight they take in jokes, in learning, in life. Irwin, a man of mystery and deceit, has no office, no hinterland; he's a moral and social chameleon.

On its way to the screen Hector's role has been somewhat diminished and Irwin has become less sinister, his future as a revisionist historian and a political spin doctor toned down. The play's sexual politics, mostly concerned with frustration and discontent, are now more prominent. Hector practices grope therapy on pupils who ride pillion on his bike, and thus blights his professional future. The most sensitive of the boys, Posner (beautifully played by Samuel Barnett), confides in the closet gay Irwin: 'I'm a Jew. I'm small. I'm homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I'm fucked.'

Posner loves the saturnine Dakin, the only sexually experienced member of the class, and serenades him with the Rodgers and Hart song 'Bewitched', which restores the original gay intention of Hart's lyrics. The manipulative Dakin not only toys with the affections of Posner, Irwin and Hector, he blackmails the headmaster over his lunges at the school's flirtatious girl secretary. As for the forthright Mrs Lintott, who's as much a reflection of Bennett as Hector is, she recalls her first pizza at Durham more vividly (and fondly) than her first experience of sex.
Approaching the film version I feared that the acting, so wonderful on stage, might be overly theatrical. This is not the case. The performances are nicely toned down. That the headmaster remains two-dimensional is not Clive Merrison's fault. I also worried that the boys would look too old when scrutinised in close-up. This too hasn't happened. They look just right and just as scruffy in their uniforms as teenagers ever were. Of course they're cleverer, wittier, better informed than grammar-school boys were in my day. But there's a moment when the assured Dakin is embarrassed and humiliated to discover he's been mispronouncing the name of Nietzsche that rings absolutely true. It brought back painful memories I've been trying to suppress all my life.
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Old 17th Oct 2006, 12:50   #4
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Default Re: The History Boys

I suppose I just meant 'people' rather than crits. Probably.

Anyway, I wouldn't see the film over the play. I don't doubt it's much more immediate and appreciable on the stage.

One other good note was Rufus Wainwright singing Bewitched over the closing credits. Now that was worth waiting for.
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Old 22nd Oct 2006, 16:54   #5
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Default Re: The History Boys

Well, Mr P and I went to see this last night and I must say, in contrast to amner, we and the audience we shared the experience with, absolutely loved it! Yes, there are a scattering of things you can carp about but we, and they, were bowled over by the exuberance, the wisdom, the tragedy, the wit - and last, but not least, the delightful, very affecting, bittersweet charm of the piece. Bennett's intelligence and wry understanding of the educational establishment and its dubious goals, ring true and brightly. And testament to his unerring knack for pinning the truth yet never falling into tedious lecture mode, he uses his phenomenal and much revered comedic skills to enhance the truths and points he wishes to make, without ever allowing the comedy to detract from them. And - AND [she says, trying to draw breath] - besides all that, Richard Griffiths' performance as Hector, the eccentric homosexual sage/fool master who teaches the boys to recite reams of fabulous poetry from heart, the farewell scene from Brief Encounter, the songs of Gracie Fields, and other apparent silly-but-fun irrelevancies in a bid to rid them of any pretentious spouting about 'litra-cher' and 'just lurrrrving words' is worth the price of admission alone. His is a bravura perfomance that fills the screen (literally as well as metaphorically) and yet never - not for one exuberant little slip of a moment - does it ever run in danger of becoming OTT or tripping into caricature or pantomime. And there are other wonderful performances too - Frances de la Tour (whose eyes, like molten wax, now seem to be hellbent on melting and slipping past her nose in a bid to reach her chin) gives a robust, perfectly judged performance. She conveys beautifully the weary authority and intense pragmatism that comes with teaching adolescent boys for most of her working life, but imbues the role with warmth and wit - thanks to her own highly-respected talent and Bennett's wonderful script. There is one particular scene where she, Hector, Irwin (the new teacher brought in to help the boys cram for their Oxbridge entry examinations) and the boys are discussing the importance of history - or rather what history really is. Her response is to erupt in a diatribe berating men for making history nothing more than a record of their gross mismanagement of events, while riding roughshod over the fairer sex, culminating in a heated cry of, "History is all about women following behind .... with a bucket!" Wikkid stuff - as the schoolboys no longer say.

Sticking with cast, I would also like to make special mention of Samuel Barnett, who plays Posner, the lad waking up to his homosexuality. Apart from a fabulous shiver-down-the-spine singing voice, his acting is superb. Thoroughly believable and charming and affecting throughout, and - hooray of hoorays - the lad can do comedy brilliantly. If there's any justice at all, his is a talent that we should be hearing a lot more of in the future. Another solid, excellent performance comes from Dominic Cooper as the cocky (again, in every sense of the word) lothario of the group. His affectation of combing his dark Latin-looking locks, one eyebrow raised in knowingness, ennui and world-weary cynicism - all just the right desperate side of schoolboy self-consciousness trying too hard to cut the right dash. In fact, all the performances are very, very good, with two exceptions. Stephen Campbell Moore as Irwin, a slightly tragic character who is burdened with shame about his homosexuality, and the sense of failure at being turned down by Oxbridge, struck me as awkward - but for the wrong reasons. There is a self-consciousness to his body language and the timing of his lines that smacks of the actor who worries they aren't 'doing it' quite right. It's an amateurishness that makes the audience uncomfortable somehow, and although he coped adequately, I never entirely felt at ease watching him. By contrast, Clive Merrison, as Headmaster, was so confident and intent on playing the role for all it was worth, he made rather a ham out of the part. A pantomime ogre - suited more to the demands of the stage than screen where a little more subtlety is called for. But these are very, very small gripes, and neither actor dented the enjoyment factor by more than a shiver.

But yes, amner is absolutely right in that the boys we see here are nothing like the boys of sixth forms I've ever known - including my own dear twosome - and most of them looked a good few years older than eighteen. Yet it didn't bother me, because had Bennett chosen to make the lads more true to the life you and I both know, he wouldn't have had a play that was one half as entertaining. He needed to use a little artistic licence with their willingness to act and recite and learn yards of poetry by heart - and to allow flagrant (at times poignant, at others comedic) scenes of homosexuality to be witnessed without embarrassment and the inevitable backlash it usually elicits outside the classroom - in order to make the points he was striving to illuminate. Bennett is frequently very worthy, but he is never dull. Real-to-life adolescent lads would have denied the audience much pleasure. And some of the songs and skits the boys perform are real highlights and, at the showing we saw, brought the house down - The Brief Encounter one, in particular.

Gosh this is becoming very unwieldy - so I'll try to wrap things up now - but I simply cannot go without returning to the underlying wit and wisdom that Bennett brings to The History Boys. Very adroitly and nimbly, and always with the lightest yet surest of touches, he addresses the whole manner in which history is taught - and in so doing, questions the very fabric and methodology of the education today. For instance, the current need to spice things up, to distort the conventional understanding of past events (or at least take a controversial view of them), purely to 'sex things up' to impress weary examiners grown tired and impatient with hearing the same version of events from every set of papers; teaching that gimmickry can open doors - which unfortunately it does; the insistence that learning must be with a goal, a serious pressurised business that has little time for the sheer joy of applying oneself to something because it's fun - let alone because it's just delightfully silly; the notion that history is made not through well-thought out decisions and actions determined by ambitious intelligent men, but by chance events and flukey circumstance; that history is, for the main, nothing more than a testament to the foolishness and mismanagement of events inflicted on man - by man; that nepotism and the 'old boy network' are still rife in our old establishments and as a result, conveniently blind eyes will be turned to ineptidude and paucity of talent; that gaining entry to the hallowed halls of Cambridge, the cobwebbed cloisters of Oxford, doesn't necessarily mean you'll be happy - and therefore it might be an achievement but it might not be worth the having; the fact that reality is never cut and dried - even less so the so-called realities of the past - such that history is not something we can ever trust entirely. None of these suggestions are, of course, new - but as with all things Bennett, he manages to serve them up in his own highly individualistic style and adorn them with terse, beautifully-timed lines that while tickling the funny bone, also have a deliciously fatalistic, slightly Eeyore-ish wry despair to them. And Bennett's sense of dramatic timing is as impeccable as ever. For just when things have got a little serious and you're in danger of losing yourself in the lumpen grey clouds of man's folly and inhumanity to man, Bennett magically produces a sharp ray of sun to pierce the gloom, and immediately, the pathos and ridiculousness inherent to our species becomes a laughing matter once more.

Whether this is worse or better than the stage show I don't know, not having been lucky enough to caught a theatrical showing to date. But I do know that for whatever minor indiscretions it may contain, it's still a glowing testament to the skill and talent of a modern day master of dialogue, prose and story structure: for example, the ending contains some very fine twists and unexpected turns that caught me completely off guard; it's something else he is always very good at, delivering the unexpected just as you think things are more or less sorted. The very last line in the film belongs to Hector - a repeat of the instruction given in an earlier scene to the boys, enjoining them to keep history alive by handing it down as best they can to the next generation: 'Pass it on,' he says, 'Pass it on.' And so I will: thank goodness for Alan Bennett; and thank goodness for The History Boys. It ain't perfect, but it's more than good enough. Pass it on ...


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Old 23rd Oct 2006, 11:58   #6
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Default Re: The History Boys

Well I wasn't going to bother seeing this but I might just go now...
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Old 23rd Oct 2006, 12:10   #7
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Default Re: The History Boys

Me too. Particularly since I called in at the theatre box office where the play is running next week and they said it's sold out...
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Old 24th Oct 2006, 8:57   #8
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Default Re: The History Boys

Ok, I must echo some of Honey's sentiments too, I also recently thoroughtly enjoyed the History Boys., although it probably only ranks a 1/2

I'm unlikely to see the play but love Bennet's writing, and loved how it was still all there - unsurprising really but still. It was witty and dry and if it somewhat ignored the politics of the time, I didn't mind. It wasn't about the politics of the time and the general studies teacher (RG was brilliant) had a very clearly set out agenda that didn't seem to vere that way at all, hence no current politics (or anything else general). I have to say that when I was doing my A levels and applying to Cambridge (more out of bloody mindedness and to see if I could get an offer than anything else) I didn't pay much attention to what was going on in the world....

Frances de la Tour, excellent, the scene with the three teachers lining up in the corridor to speak to the headmaster about Hectors indesgeressions was so touching, sad and yet resigned. Resigned to their role is how I think of many of the teachers I've had.

The kids, good too - too old, but that has also been dealt with by my dear friend HP.

The one descent into smaltze was that final scene, the flash forwards. Didn't sit too well, but I just think they could have done it better, it was too far removed in its style from the rest of the film.

I'd go and see it, those of you who haven't. It made me laugh, it made me remember, it made me wish I had had teachers a bit more like Hector although my English Teacher, Mr Robinson, was probably a pretty good mix of Hector and Mr Irwin, he sent me off prety well, and Davey for that matter.
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Old 24th Oct 2006, 9:22   #9
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Default Re: The History Boys

Hey, glad you enjoyed, too, Digger. Y'know, even now I'm still getting flashbacks to Hector's fabulous 'French Lesson' scene - the one that gets interrupted by the headmaster and new teacher .... priceless stuff!

Ooh - and as Hector tries to explain away his having felt a boy's crutch as 'the laying on of hands', Frances de la Tour exclaiming: "For goodness sake, man - a grope is a grope: it is not the Annunciation!"
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Old 24th Oct 2006, 10:36   #10
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Default Re: The History Boys

Quote:
Originally Posted by HoneyPotts View Post
even now I'm still getting flashbacks
You're not the only one.
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