The History Boys is one of those films that originates from the stage but fails to reflect the fact that the silver screen requires a different approach in order to ensure the same success. I admittedly haven’t seen the original six-times Tony award winning play so direct comparisons between it and this new film version cannot be made but the fact that it came from the stage is evident almost immediately.
When eight boys from a Sheffield grammar school attain some of the highest A-level results in the history of the institution they are put on an accelerated course of studies in order to prepare them for their entrance exams and interviews for both Oxford and Cambridge University. Their headmaster employs a new teacher (Stephen Campbell Moore) in order to challenge their conventional way of thinking and the manner in which they have been taught by their favourite teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths).
The History Boys is – for the majority of its running time – stuffy, over-intellectualised and boring. It certainly raises some interesting questions about how history and other subjects should be taught but it is much like a professor who has been cloistered in an academic institution for many decades: It might be able to talk the talk but when it comes to taking some action to drive the narrative and its characters, it languishes in its own indulgent ‘intelligence’. At times I felt like I was trapped in school again.
Dead Poets Society this film is not and any comparisons to the 1989 Robin Williams classic are ridiculous. The History Boys’ themes are darker and instead of a compassionate John Keating you get not one but two closeted gay men, both of whom are hoping for something more than just intellectual stimulation.
Hector, the boy’s General Studies teacher, offers them rides home on his motorcycle when he occasionally feels them up – much to the annoyance of the boys. The thing I can’t understand is why get on his bike in the first place? We are led to believe that they are some of the brightest minds in their grammar school but the act of repeatedly accepting these lifts doesn’t make sense.
Irwin, the teacher brought in to help the boys find an ‘edge’ for their final exam and interviews, is direct and poignant with his ideas concerning history and teaching but – as is pointed out – he is impotent when it comes to acting on his feelings for one of his students: Again, another case of high intelligence impeding the drive for action. Of the two teachers I sympathised with Irwin the most simply because he was not as predatory as Hector but I didn’t like him much more.
The History Boys uses the same director, writer and cast from its stage production but the translation from stage to screen is rough and unrefined. Large sections of this film are devoted to dialogue and wordy discussion, which is understandable seeing as the film is about education, but what suits a theatre environment is certainly not conducive to a film adaptation. The theatre tradition of telling-more-than-showing hinders the film.
The History Boys may have rich, well-written dialogue and performances but I found the whole experience to be stiff and lifeless at times. If you’re looking for a life-affirming Dead Poets experience then look somewhere else but for those who enjoy dull British drama this may just appeal to you.