Stephen Campbell Moore
Frances de la Tour
Few people could have failed to hear about the phenomenal success of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys. It gained rave reviews from the hard to please UK critics, played to packed houses at the National Theatre and then transferred to Broadway, where this very English drama scooped all the top Tony Awards, including those for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Play.
Now Nicholas Hytner, the play’s director in its stage incarnation and a previous Bennett collaborator (most notably The Madness of King George) has brought The History Boys to the silver screen, while Bennett has adapted his play for the purpose.
The History Boys is set in Sheffield in 1983. It follows nine boys who, after completing their A levels at their grammar school, have returned for a term’s coaching ahead of the Oxbridge entrance exams. With action set mainly in the school, Bennett’s wonderful dialogue subtly examines the shifting friendships and allegiances between the boys and their teachers.
Part of the huge success of the play at the National and on Broadway was the wonderful chemistry between the cast. Thankfully the entire original cast have returned for the film. Of the nine boys, three in particular stand out. Dominic Cooper plays Dakin, the cool boy who everyone hero worships. Cooper makes his character charming, likeable and terribly arrogant, and he has a real charisma in front of the camera.
Samuel Barnett plays Posner, the boy who is painfully in love with Dakin, has many of the film’s best lines. Barnett makes an embarrassing scene, where he sings to Dakin, both amusing and achingly poignant. Finally there’s Jamie Parker, who somehow manages to make the highly religious Scripps funny, human and in some ways the easiest for the audience to relate to.
The teachers include the magnificent Richard Griffiths as Hector, a teacher who inspires the boys – coaching them to love knowledge for its own sake and not just to be regurgitated for exams. While a great teacher, Hector is a terribly flawed man, and his unhealthy obsession with several of the boys has unforeseen consequences.
Griffiths was remarkable on stage and one of the main disappointments of this film is that much of the sparkle and charisma of his performance is missing. This larger than life character seems diminished on film. The problem with this is, if you don’t fall in love with Hector’s style of teaching and philosophy of life, then much of what happens later in the film loses its impact.
While the wonderful Frances de la Tour is also underused, conversely, Stephen Campbell Moore is a revelation in this film. Campbell Moore was excellent in Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things and here he makes Mr Irwin, the teacher who believes there is no such thing as the truth and has no problem manipulating any subject to make his point, much more human and tragic than before. There is a scene between Irwin and Dakin towards the end, which is by far the best sequence in a film this year. The emotion, tension and subtly shifting power balance is breath-taking to watch.
It can be folly for a playwright to revise their own material. Bennett has not been entirely successful this time. There is not enough differentiation between the static, overly dramatic tone needed for stage and the faster paced, more emotionally subtle tone needed for film.
Sadly many of the play’s darker aspects are missing, as well as much of Bennett’s contemplations on the manipulability of both history and the media, which added more depth to the stage version. The discussion regarding the nature of history and education is also very much diluted, diminishing the power of Bennett’s argument. His work is always a joy, and remains so here – his use of language and humour make this film worth seeing.
But what made the play so great is that there was so much more going on. The film fails to translate these subtle layers to the audience. It’s enjoyable certainly, with a cast of actors who now thoroughly inhabit their characters, but something has definitely been lost.