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The History Boys

2006

R

Based on the Tony Award winning play, The History Boys tells the story of an unruly class of talented British schoolboys vying for admittance to Britain's top universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

Starring:
Samuel Anderson, James Corden
Runtime:
1 hour, 52 minutes

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I did the "Oxbridge term" at exactly the same time as "The History Boys," the fall of 1983. I chose instead to accept a scholarship to an American university that I won halfway through the Oxbridge term. I've lived in America ever since, but my first 19 years was in England, and I can relate to this movie.

Some explanations are in order, because some cultural things are hard on American audiences. Someone once famously observed that we're two nations divided by a common language.

"The History Boys" is not set at a boarding school; it's a grammar school, and it's a second-tier grammar school. In the pecking order back then, you'd have had your British public (but actually private) schools, then your grammar schools led (as the movie mentions) by the likes of Manchester Grammar. Then you'd have the grammar schools like the one in the movie and it would, for these boys, have been a heck of an opportunity (if you buy into the whole Oxford & Cambridge thing, which obviously I didn't) and a bit of a reach. They'd be at a disadvantage for some of the reasons given in the movie (fewer opportunities than kids at more high-falutin' schools) and for the reason of simple English snobbery and the class system at the time.

Second, the class represented here is not, as one reviewer suggested, a mythical place where students care, teachers care and debate thrives. This is an actual place, very much how good English schools were, especially in the last year of 'A'-Levels and the Oxbridge term. It's very well-portrayed here. When I came to the USA, where I attended a fine public university, I never recovered from my disappointment that there wasn't the same level of debate and class discussion.
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(3.5 stars) Set in the 1980s in a boarding school in the north of England, this newly released film adaptation of Alan Bennett's play (which won six Tony Awards during its 2006 New York run), follows eight young "sixth-formers" who are preparing for the history entrance examinations for Oxford or Cambridge. To help the students prepare for the exams, the headmaster hires a young teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to improve the students' "presentation" so that they will stand out from the crowd. Irwin's goal is to teach the students to think "outside the box"--not to be dull--when they answer examiners' questions.

His mission conflicts with the goals of the English and History teachers. Hector, the motor-cycle-riding English teacher (Richard Griffiths), has taught the students reams of poetry, along with the French subjunctive (though it is not his subject), having students practice their French by pretending to negotiate at a brothel. He takes the long view and values education for its own sake. The History teacher, Dorothy Lintott (Frances de la Tour), has taught the facts: "Plainly stated and properly organized facts need no presentation, surely," she remarks to the headmaster. The students' efforts to be accepted at Oxford drive the action.

The film features many of the same actors who appeared in the stage play, notably the brilliant Griffiths as Hector, the sensitive Moore as Irwin, the tough-talking, heart-of-gold de la Tour as Dorothy Lintott, and the same eight students, joking, bantering with their teachers, and pursuing their favorite subject--sex. The film, however, is very different in tone from the play. In the play the conflict between the teachers and their views of education unites the action and gives depth and universality to strong themes.
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Format: DVD
"The History Boys" is based on the popular play by Alan Bennett. Filmed between the British run of the play and its world tour, the film features the same cast and director as the stage production. The story is set among the students and teachers at a boys' grammar (state) school in Yorkshire in 1983. The school's headmaster (Clive Merrison) in intent on seeing that his eight best 6th term students (seniors) get into the prestigious Oxford or Cambridge universities. He brings in a new teacher, Mr. Irwin (Steven Campbell Moore), to coach the boys for their exams. Between Irwin's provocative approach, Mr. Hector's (Richard Griffiths) unorthodox classroom, and Miss Lintott's (Frances de la Tour) traditional instruction, the boys get a few lessons on the real world along with their history.

"The History Boys" covers the personal and academic challenges of 12 people -8 students and 4 instructors- as the young men race to prepare for tests that might determine their future. The movie contains some material that isn't in the play, but it has also removed a lot to make the film shorter and tighter. It's theatrical and talky, with characters that are more representative of types than realistic. But it's very funny at times, and that's the basis on which I recommend "The History Boys". The humor is balanced by a somewhat awkward drama that I expect will have no shortage of detractors. The theme of competing educational styles runs throughout: Irwin teaches to tests, Lintott teaches traditional curricula, and Hector provides an eclectic, inspirational window on life and art. This is another one of those schoolboy tales in the vein of "Dead Poets Society". The depth is found in the teachers more than the students, but the boys' unapologetic humor won me over.
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