|The History Boys (2006)
Starring: Richard Griffiths, Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Samuel Anderson, Russell Tovey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour
Director: Nicholas Hynter
What is it about adapting a play for the screen that seems to trap a movie when it should be setting it free? I enjoyed the adaptation of “Proof,” but it was by no means perfect, and even the musicals like “Rent” and “The Producers” looked awkward in the one medium that would allow them to make the kinds of shifts in location and time that theater people dream of. “The History Boys” gets lost in translation as well, but not in the same way; if anything, the problems are not stage-restricted problems but simple conventions-of-moviemaking problems. The story comes to a screeching halt about halfway through, and the filmmakers definitely could have taken a lesson from the makers of “Trainspotting” by recording a more Yank-friendly version of the dialogue. Maybe that makes me a tosser. Fine, I’m a tosser. But I couldn’t understand a damn thing these kids were saying.
The story is set in 1983, and a motley, but extremely bright, crew of Sheffield grammar school kids is selected to take the Oxbridge entrance exams. The headmaster (Clive Merrison) is worried about the reputation his school would receive if this band of ruffians, however smart, were to interview, so he brings in a ringer named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore, who will instantly remind “Buffy” fans of Alexis Denisof) to counter the free-form teachings of their general studies instructor Hector (Richard Griffiths, whom most people know as Uncle Vernon Dursley in the “Harry Potter” movies). The boys react the way you would expect them to, with equal parts resentment and acquiescence, though for some students, the teachers are the least of their troubles. Posner (Samuel Barnett) thinks he’s gay, which makes him think he’s in love with heartthrob Dakin (Dominic Cooper). But Dakin is dating school secretary Fiona (Georgia Taylor), and the uncertainty of Dakin’s affections turns out to be a roadblock for several people. To say any more would be to say too much.
Though I will say this, and once again, I’m stealing from and adding to a comment from a colleague (Mark Pfeiffer): maybe all those Smiths, James and Belle & Sebastian songs about the ambiguity of sexuality in those formative years paint a, well, more vulgar picture than we would like them to. Was everyone really as gay – or willing to be gay for a price – as this story claims they are? Perhaps, but since the boys’ sexualities seem to be for sale (save Posner), you’re never exactly sure if their decisions are based on desire or opportunity.
Well, whether or not you’ve dressed up in women’s clothes, messed around with gender roles, there is much to like about the soundtrack. It is very much of the era; New Order, the Smiths, the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen and the Clash are all here (and most of them are represented in the form of rare remixes you won’t find anywhere else), but it adds nothing to the plot. Having said that, when the songs disappear – and they disappear for a good 20 to 30 minutes – you’ll be thanking your lucky stars when they return. The only problem is that you’ll be more aware of the songs the second time around, and they won’t have the same effect. There is also a tragedy in the second half that feels forced, as if the author thought that in order for the ending to have meaning, it must contain suffering. He thought wrong.
“The History Boys” is at times entertaining but wildly uneven with its storytelling to reel in the viewer for good. Go with the soundtrack instead: at least you’ll be able to understand what the singers are saying.
The single-disc release of “The History Boys” is a bit of a disappointment, but then again, so was the film. Apart from the mundane audio commentary by the director Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett, the DVD also features a collection of video diaries from the theater production’s international tour (“History Boys Around the World”) and a short featurette on adapting the play for the screen (“Pass It On”).