I’ve just seen a wonderful movie, The History Boys, based on a hit play by British comedian Alan Bennett about a likeable gang of characters in a British prep school. The smartest students in this idealistic working-class school yearn to be accepted at Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge University) rather than the more proletarian schools (Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Hull) that are their lot by class selection. This film follows their quest for one year.
The students’ hero is an inspired History teacher, Hector. Hector is a marvel to look at and listen to, an obese, aging, bumbling apparition with a bowtie and an outlandish drooping belly, played by Richard Griffiths in a performance so good you may want to rewind the movie and watch it again as soon as it’s finished, just to enjoy him some more.
History Boys is a performance-driven movie, but the storyline is rather sophisticated and complex. Hector is the best teacher any student ever had — the excitement his charges feel for Latin and the Classics attest to this — but he is also a serial pedophile with a known habit of gently touching his students while giving them rides on his motorcycle. The fact that his “crime” is a public secret among the faculty and student body adds richness to this story. Is it a crime, they wonder? He never takes his molestations far, and he only approaches students who expect and agree to it (they allow him this liberty, apparently out of appreciation for his teaching, even though most are not gay). Hector seems to have constructed an entire Platonic society, in all senses of the word, a modern agora. It takes an actor with the charm of Richard Griffiths (whose other roles have included Falstaff, as well as Harry Potter cameos) to make this fully believable, and he does.
Remarkably, though, Griffiths’ performance is fully equaled by that of Frances de la Tour (who has also been an overqualified participant in Harry Potter movies) as the History department’s brittle, incisive dowager, Mrs. Lintott. An actor as big as Richard Griffiths needs a hard foil, and de la Tour acidic realism matches Griffiths’ transcendental optimism in one delightful exchange after another. Here, they finally talk openly about Hector’s crimes:
HECTOR: I didn’t actually do anything. I mean, it was a laying on of hands, I don’t deny that, but more by way of benediction than of gratification.
MRS. LINTOTT: Hector, darling, love you as I do, that is the most colossal balls.
HECTOR: Is it?
MRS. LINTOTT: A grope is a grope. It is not the Annuncation.
Elsewhere, in an unforgettable moment, she explodes at all the males surrounding her:
Can you imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of male ineptitude? … What is history? History is women following behind, with a bucket.
History Boys is not a perfect movie, and if you distinctly don’t like this sort of thing (and many, many people don’t) there’s very little chance you’ll like this specific thing. And even if you do like the film as much as I do, you may bristle at the ending, which goes too far and does too much (I wonder if playwright Alan Bennett simply did not realize that the contrived conclusion was not necessary, that the audience was already fully satisfied before this act of punctuation). The very final sequence, though, a spooky departure reminiscent of the final scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, is surprising enough to be worthy of the whole. Finally, despite the two great performances, the casting of several students and teachers could have been better. If Mike Leigh had directed this film, every student and teacher would have been memorable. Instead, Hector and Mrs. Lintott simply steal the show like they’re robbing a bank, while everybody else stands and watches.
But this is no matter. The History Boys is a movie of deep, stirring contemplations. We contemplate the fact that Hector’s large lovable face, at certain moments, takes on an aspect that is truly monstrous. We contemplate the irony that the inspired classicist Hector himself did not attend “Oxbridge” (the students openly snicker when he tells them he attended “Sheffield”) and does not think Oxbridge will be good for them, though he helps them apply.
I’ve heard that one of the students, the shy Posner, is based on young Alan Bennett himself. I’ve also learned that The History Boys ran on Broadway just a few years ago with this very cast, and I didn’t go. Damn! Well, I’ve learned my lesson (so to speak), and I won’t miss an Alan Bennett play again. Luckily, we’ll always have this movie.