The acting is the most outstanding thing in “The History Boys,” the wonderfully literary, wordy, and wise new film based on Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play. The London cast reprised their roles on Broadway, and now the same troupe appears in the film. Even the director, Nicholas Hytner (who won one of the play’s several Tonys), has come along. One can see why the play earned all those raves.
Hytner has only directed a few films, including the outstanding “The Object of My Affection” and the laughable “Center Stage,” but having already worked with his “History Boys” cast, he has a head-start managing the film version. Many of the actors, though newcomers to the world of cinema, make the transition smoothly, overcoming the differences between stage acting and film acting like old pros.
There’s a particular scene I find just fascinating. It’s the mid-’80s at a fancy English private school, and the school’s eight brightest lads are having their senior years tailored to help them get into Oxford or Cambridge. One boy, the sensitive Posner (Samuel Barnett), is having a private lesson with Hector (Richard Griffiths), the boys’ unorthodox general-knowledge instructor. They’re discussing a poem by Thomas Hardy.
The poem itself, about a callow youth killed in battle, lends some insight into both characters’ statuses at this point in the story, as we expect it to. But more engaging is the interaction between Posner and Hector, which is natural and affecting. It’s rare to see two actors really ACT with each other in a movie. Most films make the audience all too conscious of the editing, the camera angles, the places where they stopped filming and then started again. But with Hytner having directed the play and Barnett and Griffiths already being intimately familiar with their roles, what unfolds on screen has the thrill and energy of live theater — live theater where, thanks to the close-ups possible in film, the audience is sitting onstage with the actors. It’s the best of both worlds.
The film is like that all over. The attempts to make the play more cinematic are minimal, mostly on the order of setting a scene outside instead of in a classroom. Instead we’re treated to Bennett’s wonderful prose (he wrote the adaptation, too), to these intelligent and erudite characters who speak the language of literature and academia while suffering the vicissitudes of adolescence.
Though on its surface the story — in which an unusual teacher inspires private-school boys to greater heights — sounds hopelessly derivative, there are some eyebrow-raising twists in “The History Boys.” The fact that Hector, a fat old cartoon of a man, often gives the boys a ride home on his motor scooter and touches them inappropriately as he does so, for example. The fact that the boys all know it and don’t particularly mind, for another example, not because they like it but because it seems harmless in its way, a tentative and non-threatening exploration by an impotent old buffoon.
Sexuality, especially hetero-, is a significant factor in the story, as is appropriate for a film about eight 17-year-old boys. Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the ladies’ man leader of the class, is the only one with any real experience, but that doesn’t stop the others from talking about it. Dakin is Hector’s favorite motor-scooter partner, too, and the boy soon strikes up a friendship with the new teacher, the youthful Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), that sheds further light on the confusion and frustration inherent in being 17 and male.
Apart from Dakin and Posner (and possibly Rudge, a dull and ordinary working-class lad played by Russell Tovey), the boys’ personalities are mostly underdeveloped. Timms (James Corden) is the fat cut-up, Akhtar (Sacha Dhawan) is the Muslim; the others are even less well-defined than that. Yet their behavior as a group — debating history with Irwin, joking with Hector, bursting into spontaneous reenactments of famous movies (one of Hector’s favorite teaching devices), practicing their French by improvising a scene at a brothel, complete with Dakin trouser-less and lying on a desk — it all feels, if not “realistic,” per se, believable in the way that all good theater is believable.
Everyone is good, but Richard Griffiths is especially noteworthy. The Tweedledee-shaped character actor is best-known in recent years as Uncle Vernon in the “Harry Potter” movies; he was also the wheelchair-bound professor memorably de-pantsed and embarrassed by Leslie Nielsen in “Naked Gun 2 1/2.” His face is outrageously rubbery and character-filled, the sort of mug that implies Mother Nature moonlights as a caricaturist, with an accompanying body that is refreshingly unapologetic about its girth. Griffiths inhabits Hector completely, every tic and gesture motivated by real human emotions. It’s easy to judge some of his actions harshly, yet Griffiths never stops reminding us that Hector is a brilliant teacher and a sympathetic human being, too.
B+ (1 hr., 49 min.; )