28 April 2008

The History Boys (2007)

Director: Nicholas Hytner
Cast: Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Clive Merrison

For someone who described her blog as being about movies and music, I have been terribly lax about posting any movie reviews.:-) I will try to make up for it with this post. I have seen two good movies over the last month - The History Boys and Death at a funeral, both British, and both without any big name cast.

The History Boys first debuted as a play. A successful run prompted its big screen debut soon after, with the same cast and crew. I watched The History Boys with absolutely no preconceptions since I had never seen nor heard of the play. What a revelation it was to watch a movie about teenagers and their rite of passage which did not involve drugs, sex and foul language. What pleasure, indeed, to hear high school students who knew how to quote poetry, and debate history.

The principal of the school, long labouring under the school not being amongst the top grammar schools of the country, has ambitions bordering on the manic - he wants his students accepted into Oxford and Cambridge. A not unworthy ambition actually, since his students have topped their A- levels. The principle insists on them attending an extra term during the summer holidays to prepare them for the admission process into two of England's most prestigious universities. Not entirely happy with the tutoring at school, he hires a tutor for the summer term - one who will help students pass examinations. The screenplay highlights the real love for the subject that one teacher has, a love he manages to pass on to his students, and the more practical way of the new tutor. For people who felt that the students seemed unreal, may I point out that we, who laboured under the British system of education, were also expected to read poetry and literature, and history?

As for the homosexual theme criss-crossing the plot, I have yet to see such an understated yet powerful depiction of homosexuality, which indeed is more openly talked about in a same-sex environment as the English Grammar school. Many viewers felt that the film condoned homosexuality - I beg to differ. The boys accepted it as a part of their teacher's life - and no, they did not enjoy being groped. In fact, if you follow the dialogues closely, you will realise that the boys know exactly what Hector is up to, and take their own precautions AGAINST being groped. As Dakin so succinctly puts it "All you have to do is to say 'And where is that hand going, Hector?' for him to take his hand back." On another occasion, one of the boys moves his 'Economy in Tudor times' into place. To them it is a game they play, mocking Hector even while they appreciate his craft.

Even Irwin, who it seems has homosexual tendencies, is shown struggling with himself and his attraction for his student. It's a telling comment by Posner (about Irwin's attraction): "He looks at Dakin and I look at him looking at Dakin. Our eyes meet over Dakin". It was a film that was superbly crafted and extremely well acted - a couple of the scenes stand out - one where Irwin takes the boys to the war memorial and ends a scathing lecture on history by saying "If you want to forget something, commemorate it." The other one is where Hector tutors Posner alone - it shows why the boys respect Hector. His homosexuality is an open secret. Until it is brought to the headmaster's notice by someone totally unconnected with the school, he prefers to avoid any mention of it. This may seem morally ambiguous, but isn't that what happens most times?

The ending did not bother me; for most people who felt that it smacked too much of good university = good positions, well, why not? Isn't it true? A degree from MIT or Stanford or Harvard or any other great university this side of the Atlantic is nothing to shake a stick at. Doesn't it automatically set up better career opportunities? The boys came from blue-collar backgrounds. Working their way up into Oxford and Cambridge was their way out.

They succeeded. So does the movie.

© Anuradha Warrier

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