Inspired by the Tony Award-winning play that stormed through a successful run on Broadway, “The History Boys” takes a wistful look at a group of precocious prep-school students who yearn to be accepted at Britain’s top universities, Oxford and Cambridge. To that end, they spend their days in the classrooms of Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), needling their professors with pointed questions and quoting the likes of Auden, Hardy and Shakespeare.
Hector and Irwin couldn’t be more different, though they share a fondness for the boys that extends beyond the acceptable boundaries of the teacher-student relationship. Hector is a plump, elderly dinosaur of a professor who is determined to impart the lessons of poetry on his pupils, even if they’re too inexperienced to understand them. Irwin is much younger and less self-assured, but his methods are more challenging and his classroom more lively. He implores the boys to question conventional wisdom, whether that means defending Stalin or blaming England, not Germany, for the horrors of World War I.
Irwin fancies his students — particularly the dashing Dakin (Dominic Cooper) — and immediately develops a strong rapport with them. He struggles to maintain a professional relationship with the boys, even when one of them practically begs for extracurricular attention. Hector isn’t so restrained. He is caught fondling a student, incurring the wrath of the sneering headmaster, played with almost cartoonish ferocity by Clive Merrison.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner and written by Alan Bennett, the same duo who first brought the production to the National Theater in London, “The History Boys” features every member of its original cast, from Griffiths, who brings the right mix of cheerful enthusiasm and thinly veiled desolation to his role as Hector, to Campbell, whose quick-witted professor energizes every one of his scenes. The boys are a mixed lot, with Cooper and Samuel Barnett, as a teenager coming to grips with his own sexual proclivities, at the head of a universally talented class.
There is a theatricality to the production that is unmistakable, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The biggest problem with “The History Boys” is its sentimentality and lack of focus. It busily shifts from one character’s story to the next, and the segues are not always smooth.
Even so, Bennett’s story retains the emotional power it had on stage, and the movie’s best scenes — when the students are in the classroom, verbally sparring with their professors — are truly spirited, a delight to witness. In the end, these “Boys” might have made a more seamless transition from Broadway to the big screen, but they still get passing grades.
The History Boys ???
Starring Samuel Anderson, James Corden, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Dominic Cooper and Andrew Knott
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Running time 109 minutes