“The History Boys” may please fans of the original legit production and the stragglers who didn’t catch it in Gotham or London’s West End. However, auds coming cold to this largely faithful adaptation of Alan Bennett’s clever but contrived classroom comedy won’t be so wowed, given pic’s irrevocably stagy feel. Nicholas Hytner’s flat-footed direction doesn’t help, nor do pic’s younger cast members’ over-rehearsed perfs, although the seasoned thesps shine. Hard-marketing push and Bennett’s name should reap interest from Blighty’s chattering classes when it opens in the U.K. on Oct. 13, but “History” may struggle to push beyond sophisticated urban centers upon Stateside release Nov. 22.
Given legit version’s success, pic’s producers have chosen not to spike the feed of a winning horse. Helmer of the acclaimed “The Madness of King George” (another Bennett script) and three less acclaimed pics (including “The Object of My Affection”), Hytner launched the play at the National Theater, and remained on board as producer-helmer there, shooting with the original cast during the break between the London and Tony-winning New York theatrical runs.
Although two real high schools (or “grammar schools,” in Brit parlance) were used to rep one location, the action has not been opened up very much beyond the stage production’s confines. Meanwhile, Bennett’s screen adaptation adds only a few minor characters to the mix.
Set — like a number of other recent British youth-centered movies (such as “This Is England,” “Starter for Ten”) — in the early or mid-’80s, pic revolves around various staff and a selection of elite sixth-year (i.e. final-year) students at Cutler’s Grammar School, located in Sheffield, a town in the northern county of Yorkshire.
Eight boys — gay and Jewish Posner (Samuel Barnett), class stud Dakin (Dominic Cooper), portly clown Timms (James Corden), Christian Scripps (Jamie Parker), dim but sporty Rudge (Russell Tovey), badge-wearing Lockwood (Andrew Knott), and quite frankly barely sketched ethnic minorities Crowther (Samuel Anderson) and Akthar (Sacha Dhawan) — have been chosen for special tutoring in history to help them pass the difficult entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge.
Cutler’s officious headmaster (in other words, a high school principal, played by Clive Merrison), channeling the Zeitgeist of the number-crunching Thatcher era, is fixated on getting as many boys accepted as possible. To this end, he hires young Oxford history graduate Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to teach the boys new techniques that will grab the examiners’ attention.
Irwin’s methods — relativist, goal- rather than truth-oriented — contrast with those of general studies teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), who favors memorizing literary quotes. He also aims to widen the students’ cultural spheres with the poetry of A.E. Housman as well as show tunes and dialogue from Bette Davis movies, none of it terribly relevant to history but fun to riff on in his unstructured classes.
Furtively gay despite the fact that he has a “somewhat unexpected wife,” in the words of tart-tongued history teacher Dorothy Lintott (scene-stealer Frances de la Tour), Hector likes to grope the boys’ crotches when he gives them rides on his motorcycle, a habit the students’ endure. Nevertheless, his wandering hands get him into trouble eventually, creating some third-act drama that seems more pallid on screen than it did onstage.
Indeed, blow-up to the bigscreen makes the material’s fault lines look more chasm-like. For instance, Bennett’s glittery dialogue may encrust the material with jewel-bright, quotable lines, but it sounds just plain phony in the mouths of the younger characters.
Plus, the younger actors are so used to inhabiting their roles that all the spontaneity has been squeezed out, although a couple (Barnett, Parker) get better results. The more cinematically experienced Griffiths and de la Tour show how it should be done, and cook up their big set piece monologues to perfection.
However, in the end, they nearly all sound like Alan Bennett characters — and ones who would be more comfortable in the 1950s than the 1980s — rather than real people. Essentially, they’re vehicles to air competing ideas about education, homoerotic desire, and how history is written. All interesting stuff, but it never quite gels as a drama.
Hytner fails to find rhythms that would give the material a proper shape, and when in doubt gets lenser Andrew Dunn to prowl up and down the school corridors as the thesps make frantic entrances and exits.
Tech credits are serviceable but lacking in flair. Pop tunes by the likes of The Clash, The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, the stuff real teenagers were listening to in 1983, are unconvincingly deployed to add period flavor, and seem to counteract the incongruity of youngsters in the plot who like to sing Rogers and Hart’s “Bewitched” and Edith Piaf’s “L’Accordeoniste.”