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The History Boys
Review By: Stephen Snart
The transition from stage to screen is rarely a fluid one. Not for the talent involved and not for the story itself. Some stories transition rather smoothly onto film, last year’s little-seen Proof is an example of a strong character-driven story aided by filmic resources. Sometimes the impetus for turning a play into a film is the result of a strong dynamic between the original cast, such as Neil Labute’s The Shape of Things, where the transition is predominantly an excuse to preserve these performances on celluloid. Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys belongs in similar territory as Labute’s film. After garnering heaps of critical praise on Broadway and proudly becoming the recipients of “the most Tonys in 50 years” - as the trailer proudly boasts - the entire original cast reunites on screen for what feels more like a reward than a significant contribution to the cinematic medium.
After toiling away for eighteen long years in the British educational system, the group of eight young students at the center of The History Boys are invited back for an extra semester of education because of their excellent performance on their A-levels (read: a prestigious version of the GED that permits entrance to University). The aim of this extra semester is to increase the boys’ chances of getting into the two most prestigious institutions in the UK: Oxford and Cambridge.
Their snarling Headmaster (Clive Merrison) is quick to acknowledge that the boys’ acceptance will also reflect positively on the school’s reputation. He laments that the boys are “clever but crass,” and fears their chance of acceptance will be diminished because of their lack of refinement. He hires the young, pragmatic Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to teach them history in hope that a hip new approach to education will keep them on the cutting edge of the applicant pool.
Irwin, who is barely older than the boys he is teaching, tries to impart them with knowledge from the field, implying he knows exactly how the admissions board will think. He preaches that the way to impress prospective schools is by picking up on exciting or entertaining details of history and pontificating on them rather than regurgitating tired facts. This approach both complements and contrasts with the boys’ class taught by their General Studies teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths). Hector, who emphasizes a well-rounded education, encourages his students to improvise narratives in French or to sing