Monday, April 23, 2007

DVD Discovery: The History Boys is Rich and Riveting

>Brilliant in so many ways, The History Boys, written by Alan Bennett (who also wrote the stage play up which it has been adapted) centers its searing drama and comedy on the question of why we learn. Set in England in 1984, eight grammar school lads have scored well enough to apply for Oxford or Cambridge. Their heady headmaster is so madly determined to get them in and enhance his reputation that he hires a young teacher, Irwin, to badger the boys into edgier test-taking attitudes.

Irwin sells out for the chance to land a permanent position at the school by recklessly urging the boys to cease being so factually "bland" and, instead, fabricate their answers to test questions. This sets Irwin in callous contrast to quaintly aging Hector, a professor who revels in the mastering of poetry and philosophy and drama just for the joy of learning.

Essayed by actor Richard Griffiths with well-worn perfection, Hector is a teetering overweight pig of a man with a homely grin and the exquisite ability to impart the value of passing great ideas and prose from one generation to the next.

Hector is also, not to his advantage, a closeted and lonely "married" homosexual who has suffered a thousand unrequited desires at the chalkboard. With little regard for job security, Hector offers motorbike rides to his students and, en route at intersection pauses, gently gropes their genital areas in a a discretly appreciative manner.

Enter one of the eight students, Dakin, played by Dominic Cooper, a charmer who views life amorally. He is not exactly getting what he wants from his current girlfriend, so he eyes the gay options around him like a hungry speculator. He even accepts a motorbike ride from the fat professor, is touched for mere seconds and reports it to the headmaster, who seizes on the incident as a pretext to force Hector out and hand his teaching slot over to the more modern-thinking Irwin.

There is so much more than this. So many riches of thought and irony here to discover. For one, Mrs. Lintott, played by Frances de la Tour (seen here with Dominic Cooper), is a history professor who must tolerate a male dominated world, and she addresses her plight with bitting wit and insight. There are the boys themselves, full of cleverness and ambivalence over Oxford and the future And there is the tragic figure of Hector, about to be early-retired, about to lose the whole reason for his being.

Dakin is the pivotal surprise hero who in the end grows to understand and feel compassion for Hector’s brief indiscretion on him and who takes sly measures to exploit the headmasters’s similar molestations in the straight sphere in order to spare Hector the impending loss of his life in the classroom.

Hector’s redemption is short-lived, for one thing he can’t give up is his love for riding a motorbike with a big helmet on his happy head. His impact on one of his students, though, is not short-lived. "Pass it on!" Hector exhorts the boys their last day of school, alluding to the literary treasures they have confronted, however reluctantly. And one of them does, becoming a professor and passing on Hector’s passion for the chance discovery on the printed page of an idea, a feeling, a story from long ago that can feel so real and relevant today. That can salve painful wounds and offer understanding.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, The History Boys is a major work of art.

Realty check: After writing this review, I looked over some of the reviews it received, and was astonished to find so many snickering dismissals. I also found that the stage play wracked up tons of awards from Ollivers to Tonys (a record six) to Drama Desks to Outer Critics Circles. The entire stage cast played their roles in the film, and to think, when I was in New York last year, I could have got a ticket to see the play!

[orignally posted 4/23/07]

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