March 15, 2007 -- “The History Boys,” based on a play about British schoolboys trying to get into top colleges, is about what you'd expect, especially if you've seen the play first. It has all the usual clichés about English boys and sex that you would expect from this type of art film. It even has a little bit about education among the yards of footage about chaste pederasty and homosexuality. There are even a few heterosexual scenes.
The film's early scenes seem like a jumble of unrelated classroom footage, but it eventually comes together to form an actual story not totally unlike such standards of the genre as “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Mr. Holland's Opus” and “The Emperor's Club.” What makes this one different is that it has something to say about standardized testing such as that called for in the No Child Left Behind Act. Here we have two teachers at the opposite ends of the spectrum. One is Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore of “A Good Woman”) fresh out of school himself, who is hired by the headmaster of Cutler's Grammar School to teach some of the school's most promising students how to pass the entrance examinations to top schools like Oxford and Cambridge. He teaches the boys that education is a game and that passing the entrance examination is not about knowing the facts, but how to put an interesting spin on essays to make them stand out from the crowd.
At the other end of the spectrum is Hector (Richard Griffiths of the first three “Harry Potter” movies), an older teacher who thinks that education should be about fun and self-discovery. His students sing songs, act out scenes from movies and recite poetry. The odd thing is that these two seemingly incompatible teaching styles work together very well. Hector's free association style of thinking and the poetry his students learn is put to good use in discovering new angles to attack common questions in the entrance exams. The students display unexpected mental agility because of the different approaches to learning. Another key player in the story is history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”). She is Hector's best friend.
The school's most dashing student, Dakin (Dominic Cooper), is handsome, smart, and a bit of a scoundrel. He delights in seducing and manipulating everyone. Posner (Samuel Barnett) is a student unsure of his sexuality, but has a lovely singing voice and a sharp mind. Another student is Rudge (Russell Tovey), who is not interested in academics, but is a talented rugby player. The film has some plot twists, but nothing that would surprise anyone who has seen “The Dead Poets Society.” There is a nice epilog that explains what happened to all the boys. As far as drama, comedy and acting, it is really nothing out of the ordinary. What lifts this film above the average is the extremely clever, erudite and witty dialogue. One extended scene of the movie has mostly French dialogue. Judging by the laughter of those in the audience who understood it (there are no subtitles) the French dialogue is as clever as the English dialogue in the rest of the movie.
Another impressive thing about the film is its relevance to the educational institutions and practices in the United States today. The headmaster's (played by Clive Merrison) emphasis on only those aspects of education that can be quantified is precisely the problem with education, and a great many other things, in America today. Education is more than just being able to pass tests, it is about learning how to learn and how to think rationally, logically and independently. There is no easy way to quantify those kinds of goals and achievements. Another thing this film has going for it is my favorite quote about history, spoken by Rudge, “History is just one damned thing after another” (this is both a paraphrase from author Elbert Hubbard, and is a part of quote from economic historian Arnold Toynbee). History has no relevance to the present or the future. Even those who know history are doomed to repeat it. This film rates a B.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics, theater tickets and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.