Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys was named one of the year’s ten best films by the National Board of Review. PJ and I missed our opportunity to see Alan Bennett’s play when we were in London in 2004 — couldn’t get tickets — so we were not going to miss our opportunity to see the movie while we were in New York last week. A bit of an Angophile, I’m a sucker for English movies — such as Billy Elliott, Kinky Boots, Beautiful Thing, Get Real, Priest, Howards End, and Maurice — and movies about England — Notting Hill and Gosford Park, for example. So, it’s not surprising that I really liked The History Boys. I agree with the NBR — it’s one of the year’s best.

Here’s the trailer:

The History Boys is about a group of sixth-form boys in the early 1980s in a town in the North of England preparing for the Oxbridge entrance examinations, which means that they are attempting to gain entrance into one of the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge. These boys are randy, athletic, and ambitious, as are their teachers. The headmaster is only concerned with results and, seeing this as an opportunity to put his school on the map, hires a special tutor, Irwin, to help the boys with their history. Irwin, who is played by the dashing Stephen Campbell Moore (Bright Young Things), happens to be only a little older than the boys themselves, a fact that, along with his teaching to the test — he teaches the boys that style is more important than substance, that presentation is more important than truth, because style and presentation will help them make an impression — complicates his relationship with them.

Also complicated is the boys’ relationship to another teacher, Mr. Hector, played by Richard Griffiths. Hector believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake and teaches the boys a wide range of topics: World War One era poetry, song lyrics to old Rogers and Hart songs, entire scenes from Brief Encounter, and improvisation in French where the improvisation takes place in a brothel. The common theme to most of these academic pursuits is their underlying homoeroticism, which is further reflected in Hector’s tendency to grope the genitals of the straight boys while giving them rides home on his motorcycle. Despite this groping, the boys generally like Hector until this admiration is challenged by their need to ace the entrance exams and by the vision of the world taught by Irwin.