Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen
Am I the last movie fan in the universe to discover “The History Boys?”
No matter – it’s one of those movies you just stumble across by accident, and suddenly remember why you love cinema.
And if you are enamored of character development, crazy about the clever juggling of the English language, drawn to unique and delightfully cerebral – and humorous – fare, for Heaven’s sake don’t miss this film. It’s available on DVD, but will also be playing on HBO at various hours on Wednesday, Thursday and next Monday.
It’s the film version of English actor and writer Alan Bennett’s stage play that came to Broadway in 2006 and swept six Tony Awards, including Best Director and Best Actor.
“The History Boys” is set in a small English school, and follows several students and teachers as they prepare for the university admissions process for entrance into lofty Oxford and Cambridge colleges. You might think it’s a bit like a Brit take on “The Dead Poets Society,” but it’s far better than and as intellectually rich as “Wonder Boys,” the Michael Douglas-Tobey Maguire gem from 2000.
To say that it’s all about the journey and not the destination is to slight this tightly-scripted little marvel that some critics slighted because they claimed it’s “much like a filmed stage play.” OK, so what? If it’s a good play (and this one is excellent), what difference does it make? Troubled that the characters have actual conversations with one another? Holy Mackanolies, Edger, open up your brain for a minute! Because here’s one of those rare movies that fairly bubbles with wit and sophistication while tackling subjects huge and sometimes grim.
The headmaster (Clive Merrison) of this little school in the boonies has his knickers in a knot because no student of his has ever gotten into Oxford before, and he’s determined to hound his teachers (Tony-winning Richard Griffiths, who you might remember as Uncle Vernon from the “Harry Potter” flicks, and Frances de la Tour) into whipping eight bright (and semi-bright) young men into scholarship shape. As you might imagine, hilarity, hijinks, and a surprisingly wide range of thoughtful discussion ensues from both points of view, along with philosophical musings about history itself.
The teachers and the bright students pop ideas around as playfully as soap bubbles, even though the dimmest bulb in the class, a boy named Rudge (played by Russell Tovey) defines the subject of History itself as well as anyone could: “It’s just one f-ing thing after another!” he says. (Yes, let me add there’s some rough language and subject matter amongst the pearls of dialogue, but this is a film for grownups anyway.)
Like so many British films, every member of the cast sparkles, and everyone, even those with top billing like Samuel Anderson, James Cordon, Stephen Campbell Moore and the caustic Ms. De la Tour, are best known in their native land.
Frankly, I’ve always been a bit suspect of young people and their collective ability to eventually run this planet to my satisfaction. But this film actually instilled hope in me for the youth of tomorrow.
The ending is bleak, yes. The denouement, bittersweet. But the collective effect will buoy your spirits and leave you with cherished scenes to recall at leisure. Some of my own favorites include classroom antics like the students acting out snippets of dialogue from films like “Now, Voyager” and “Brief Encounter,” and one whole scene done completely in French that is absolutely hilarious and has no need of translation.
In some ways, and seen through the rather jaded eyes of some of the students, it’s quite a cynical film. And it deals, in quite a unique way, with themes like student-teacher relations, homosexuality, the validity of the English educational system, and obliquely, even minor details like the meaning of life.
I TiVoed this film. I’m going to keep it. In fact, I’m going to get up and go watch it again this evening. It’s a treasure.
Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.