The History Boys (2006) — Who’s up for a British period piece about school!

“Can you, for a moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude?”

Lissa’s rating: So this Headmaster walks into a brothel… (it makes more sense if you’ve seen the movie and can speak any French.)

Lissa’s review: If the words “British period piece” make you want to run screaming into the night, you might want to just stop right here and skip The History Boys altogether. True, The History Boys is set in a boys’ prep school in England in 1983, but it still has that artsy feel of a, well, British period piece. Or a play made into a movie, which is exactly what it is. If the mere mention of homosexuality makes you want to run screaming into the night, I’d say stay away, but frankly, you should know better than to go near British boys’ school movies anyway, since homosexuality almost always comes up in those. And if boys speaking French with no subtitles bugs you, well, rest assured they don’t do it for long.

The History Boys is one of those niche films that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone, but I really enjoyed. At first glance, the plot seems like it’s yet another Dead Poets Society wannabe. Eight boys from a lower-class prep school have the marks to be considered for Oxford and Cambridge. Can their teachers get the finer points of essay writing, history, and class through their heads before their applications and interviews?

Like I said, it seems like it’s one of those “teacher inspires boys to great things” movie, but fortunately, the package is misleading. Instead of one misunderstood genius teacher, there are three teachers that the boys consistently interact with. First, there’s Hector, the boys’ general studies teacher, played absolutely brilliantly by Richard Griffiths. While Hector is an inspiring teacher, he’s also a homosexual pedophile, a fact of which the boys are very aware and treat like an annoying but harmless joke.

Because the Headmaster doesn’t really like Hector, and because he doesn’t trust Hector to give these boys the polish they need, he hires Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a very young (and also homosexual) teacher who went to Oxford or Cambridge — I forget which. And because the writer actually acknowledged that other teachers might influence students, there’s a strong presence in Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour, looking very much like Alison Janey’s older sister). And the three teachers actually work together — it’s quite unusual for this sort of movie, I think.

Then there are the boys. Eight of them are in this special class, but maybe half of them have real personalities. I’ve read that that’s one of the failures of the stage-to-screen adaptations, but I kind of accept it as such. What I do like about the boys is that, in many ways, they act like boys. More than that, they act like nice boys, while still being boys. It made me smile in the very beginning to see teenage boys getting so excited over grades. And yet, they still thought about things boys think about, like sex and music and sports and sex. They had a nice friendship between the eight of them, with some closer alignments and petty group dynamics that rang very true to me.

So, yeah. Overall, the thing seems pretty predictable, yeah? A little conflict between teachers, some conflict between the boys, but everyone pulls together and the boys have their interviews and happiness ensues and all that. Okay.

There were some things that really, really irritated me, though. Naturally, they’re spoilers, but this isn’t a movie that is THAT unpredictable, really, so unless you’re a serious spoilerphobe, keep reading. For one, the ending implied that although the boys all got into Oxford or Cambridge, they weren’t necessarily happy. I think one or two of the minor ones had a happy life. Throughout the play/movie, there are mentions of how a first-class education won’t guarantee a happy life. Now, that principle I do agree with. But sometimes in the movie the pendulum seems to swing the other way, to the point where a first-class education will guarantee you a miserable, repressed life. I really hate that. Life is what you make of it, and that general attitude strikes me as “I didn’t get into the school I wanted so I’m going to be disdainful of everyone who went there.”

The other thing that bothered me was the expression of homosexuality in this. I am absolutely fine with the fact that Hector was a homosexual pedophile (um, in a non-condoning sort of way). It was a very interesting character choice, and I thought it made for some very complex issues in terms of dynamics between him and the boys. I could understand when Irwin, who was a very young teacher, was very attracted to a student that was blatantly hitting on him. (And when I say blatant, I mean flashing neon lights.) But what broke the camel’s back was when at the end, Posner, a student who came out during the movie, made a comment about being a teacher and being very tempted by his students. Every homosexual character in this movie was exhibiting pedophilic tendencies.

Seriously, am I the only one bothered by this? I could have understood one — maybe two — of these characters. And Duckie and I did have an argument about whether or not Irwin could be qualified as a pedophile, given that he must have been about twenty-four and Dakin was probably eighteen, and Dakin was making the very, very obvious advances. But see, here’s the thing. I like men. I’m very inclined towards men. And yet, I don’t remotely lust after the kids in my youth group. (In fact, one word: EWWWWW.) I am strongly suspecting that many adults, regardless of their sexual orientation, feel this way. They want equals, whether it be for a night or a lifetime. Sure, there’s something to be said for a hot young stud — I’ve drooled over Josh Hartnett enough that I can’t deny that. But actually wanting to act on it, especially when that person is in a position where you have power over them… most people I know would not be overly tempted. (Either that, or they all lie to me.) Anyway, the fact that there were three firmly homosexual characters and all three struggled with underage temptation… that bothered me. Way to perpetuate a stereotype.

Aside from those little peeves, though, I enjoyed The History Boys. I liked a lot of the things it had to say about education, and that it didn’t devalue one particular teaching method over another. In fact, I noticed certain boys took better to Hector’s methods while others preferred Irwin’s, (or even liked both! Gasp!) without it becoming a gang war or anything like that. I liked a lot of things the movie had to say about life in general, and I thought the acting ranged from good to outstanding. I think it’s worth seeing, as long as you’re into British period pieces about schooling.

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