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The History Boys

July 31, 2007


If ever there were a case for saying that people are talking out of their backsides, it’s the undiminished praise flowing towards the film version of Alan “national treasure” Bennett’s hit play, The History Boys.

Following the fortunes of a bunch of bright, precocious Northern lads trying to get into Oxford and Cambridge, we are chucked into the Class of ’83 (my year for getting out of school and into Uni, incidentally) and shown just how clever these boys are.

There’s a lot of verbal dexterity here, and then some subverting of the form (their form, that is, not the cinematic form, god no) before they all come good in the end.

And it’s terrible. It’s just so flat and uninspiring. Nicholas Hytner’s direction – he directed the stage play – is tepid and tedious and looks like the sort of thing the Children’s Film Foundation were doing back when Keith Chegwin was a child star.

I’m pleased to say we don’t quite go down the sickly “O Captain, my Captain” route, but this is all pretty unrealistic stuff. I’m sorry, Bennett aficionados, but it is. If some boy at my school had sung Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered in a stirring falsetto to the class hunk he’d have got lamped, probably not acceptable, I know, but he would. That’s not the point, I know, but after you’ve taken in the first example of just how smart and sensitive and endearingly wonderful these young snipes are meant to be, it all starts getting hugely irritating.

In the O&C interview practice the kids do, the famous quote that gets trotted out on the trailer, is when one of the boys is asked to define History, and he says it’s “just one fucking thing after another”. And so it is. One fucking thing after another, just plod plod plod it goes. Oh, a victory, oh a setback, oh a victory, big finish, blah.

The only point of true note is when Richard Griffiths’s character – corpulent camp and tragic – discusses the Hardy poem Drummer Hodge with one of the boys. There’s no attempt at cleverness, just two people who should be in harmony (the boy he is talking to is starting to recognise his own homosexuality) failing to connect. It’s terribly affecting, but it’s too little too late, and when that moment ended, so did any interest I had in the whole thing.

There are some funny lines, some neat quotes, but it’s a drama that treads water almost all the way through, and it should be consigned to History.

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