Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rants on The History Boys

It's movies like Nicholas Hytner's The History Boys that make me grateful I live in one of the laziest countries in the world in the world, education-wise. I don't know what I would have done if I actually had to work hard and study in high school like these boys did, preparing for the rigorous exams to get in prestigious British schools Oxford and Cambridge. You want to know how I got into my college? I filled out a one page, double sided application and wrote a one page, double spaced essay that I completely BS'ed about why I wanted to go to the school.

The real central conflict of The History Boys isn't whether or not these exams are overkill but what exactly is the proper education the students should be receiving and whether or not these exams are the true mark of their intelligence. Should it be the cut and dry, rote memorization of historical dates, people and places taught by Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour)? How about the more "general studies" approach done by the beloved Hector (Richard Griffiths) which involves memorizing poetry and reading literature while, in the lighter moments, singing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," performing the climax to Brief Encounter or conducting a skit set in a brothel en français. Or, should it be the odd synthesis of the two introduced by the school's newest teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), that teaches the students to learn about a wide variety of topics but only really get the gist of them, then combine that with the history lessons while never forgetting to approach any question that comes their way from an alternate viewpoint so that they will stand out from the pack? I think it's pretty clear what writer Alan Bennett thinks the right answer is, but, as with most films, there is more to be gained in the journey than in the inevitable conclusion.

The History Boys was a major hit on both the London stage and Broadway and it's readily apparent that this film has its roots in the theatre. In fact, it's often one of the film's biggest problems. A good portion of the scenes (most of the classroom ones, for instance) feel like they just set up a camera on stage and let the actors go for the millionth time (everyone in the film was from the original stage cast). The History Boys and director Hytner fall victim to the same problems Ron Howard ran across with Frost/Nixon. They have a highly regarded play and excellent actors who have done their business 100 times before, so they think they don't have to do anything to inject any life into it. Well, no matter what Hollywood and the Academy tells them, they're completely wrong. The director's job is to have a point of view and to get that across in the most interesting way possible, not sit back and yell "Cut!"

It seems to me that if they had gotten someone else besides Hytner (who directed the original stage version) and Bennett to work on this film, there might have been something new to glean from in those various aspects. Another edit of the script, for instance, would have been nice since both the discussion of the Holocaust and Lintott's rant about the lack of female voices over the course of history didn't work. They're both nicely written and performed well by the actors, but they served little to no purpose to the overall story other than as random excursion in academia to prove how "smart" Bennett is.

The theatricality of the piece also affects a couple of the performances (Clive Merrison's over-affected Headmaster, for one), but the largest (and I swear I didn't mean for that to be a pun) culprit is Richard Griffiths's larger-than-life portrayal of the beloved Hector. While good for the most part, he's so loud and overbearing and perfectly annunciates every single word that comes out of his mouth, it becomes immediately clear that he's still playing to the back row. This is film, Mr. Griffiths, there's no need for that phoney, excessively stylized demeanor. It makes you wonder if the powers that be were just too afraid to tell him to tone it down for the camera since he's "obviously" brilliant because he won all of those theatre awards for this performance.

If it sounds like I'm a complete hater, I really don't mean to be because there are plenty of things to celebrate in this film adaptation. Aside from Griffith's irritating performance complete with a side of ham, the acting from the rest of the cast is top-notch. While it can't be denied that some of these History Boys have been reduced to mere background characters to fill up the stage (er, set), the ones that are given any time to actually do anything achieve small wonders. Samuel Barnett, a dead ringer for Lucas Grabeel, has some wonderful moments in a traditional teenage homosexual role we've seen in countless films before (and probably since). After a dud performance that was completely shameless in Mamma Mia!, Dominic Cooper managed to impress me as Dakin, the ringleader of sorts of the group and possibly the only interesting character to emerge from the Boys.

But, if I was forced to pick a best in show, that would have to be Stephen Campbell Moore as the newcomer teacher Irwin. As he did so ingeniously in the criminally underrated Bright Young Things, Moore is able to effectively stand back and let others take their respective turns in the spotlight while somehow managing to remain engaging and thoughtful in the process. He's a completely unselfish actor and that's so rare to find- not just today but in any time period. There's this scene between him and Cooper towards the end of the film that's so excellently played between the two of them, I was hooked on every little moment. For various reasons, Cooper's character wants to have sexual intercourse with Irwin, who, remembering the touchy-feely antics of Hector's that got him in trouble, tries his damndest to rebuff the offer. In the hands of different actors it probably would have fallen apart, the scene plays out like a taut game of cat-and-mouse which sees Dakin as the headstrong predator and Irwin as the recoiled prey, never ceasing back away and nearly double over in his internal hatred of himself.

The above scene is one of the many the critics of the film cite when they mention the almost overpowering homosexuality in the play, to the point that it becomes the main focus of the film and doesn't cohere with the rest of it. I think the above scene works because Dakin has slowly been internalizing everything Irwin has been spewing in his lectures, even beginning to write like him as one of the History Boys points out to him, and the only way he can thank him for helping him these past months is to offer his body. You have to remember that he's still only 17 or 18 and still apt to make stupid decisions regarding sex (hell, there are people decades older who still make dumb choices). My big problem with the homosexuality in the film is in the ridiculously stupid finale where the Boys sit in the auditorium, reciting the occupations they will have in the future and we learn that Barnett's character (the only one who truly took Hector's lessons to heart, as we are told by Lintott) has become a teacher. He goes on to say this truly bizarre line that go something along the lines of, "I am attracted to some of the boys and it is hard to resist sometimes, but I never give in." The first time I heard, I didn't think much of it, but the more I sat and thought about what he was actually saying, I couldn't believe the stupidity radiating from that line. Am I actually supposed to applaud this guy for not touching his students like Hector did? Here, let me give you a big fat fucking medal for your valor. Give me a break. But this is what The History Boys does frequently throughout: on first glance, everything seems to flow well and an interesting argument unfolds in front of you, but on subsequent viewings and with time to actually think about it, much of it could be easily improved on. The central conflict about modern education and most of the acting is still extremely well-done, but that can only take you so far I'm afraid. C+

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