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.

Beyond the timely educational questions raised by the film — the issue of education’s role or function is one that continues to be raised in academic today, especially in the humanities: is education utilitarian or worth it for its own sake? — the movie’s treatment of sexuality is also interesting. The teachers’ potential sexual interest in their boys is, in the case of Hector, limited to events in which they will not reciprocate and thereby force him out of his closet and, in the case of Irwin, a question that intrigues some of the boys.

Frances de la Tour plays another teacher, Mrs. Lintott, nicknamed Totty. In many respects, she grounds the film in reality, questioning the other teachers’ methods and behaviors and reminding the boys that there are now women faculty at Oxford and Cambridge too. She has a great scene about the roles of women in history. Hers is a quiet but important role in the film, and de la Tour plays the part perfectly.

And then there’s Posner, played by Samuel Barnett, who is fairly blatant in his love for the group’s budding stud, Dakin, played by Dominic Cooper. In fact, it is he who yearningly sings “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” to his straight friend during one of Hector’s classes, one of the best scenes in the movie. I like that Posner’s sexuality is recognized and dealt with without making it the subject of the movie. Indeed, the film’s total acceptance of its characters’ sexual desires and activities, regardless of what they are, might be a little questionable — would teachers and their boys really behave this way more than 20 years ago?

Regardless of the answer to that question, this is one of my favorite movies so far this year. It’s a lovely film that (perhaps oddly, considering some of the content) has a lot to say about education. And it has lots for the Anglophile to admire!

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