Welcome to the feel-smart movie of the season: Directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George), written by Alan Bennett (op. cit.), and exuberantly filmed with the original London cast, The History Boys is Dead Poets Society with a master's degree, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High where the speed is mental, not physical.
The History Boys takes place at a London high school in 1983 and revolves around eight "Oxbridge" lads -- that is, seniors who are good enough, probably, to get into Oxford or Cambridge. Their school certainly takes pride in their achievement, but "sheer competence" is not good enough: There's no sense in coming this far if you don't go all the way. And so the boys give themselves over to a trio of teachers -- each with a story of his or her own -- who have three months to make them brilliant.
Most of the eight students are white, Christian and heterosexual. One is black, one a Pakistani Muslim. But they're all great pals, and it doesn't bother them a lick that Posner (Samuel Barnett) is Jewish and gay. He's also a piercing tenor, and he sings Cole Porter in class as his raffish classmate Scripps (Jamie Parker) plays elegant piano. Dakin (Dominic Cooper) is the class rogue: darkly handsome, and charmingly cocky enough, eventually, to come on to their new young history teacher, Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), even though Dakin himself is straight. (See what happens when you fill a boy's head with ideas!)
Where a popular movie like Dead Poets Society sentimentalized education, The History Boys humanizes it by having the characters apply its principles to their own lives (in fact, it seems to mock the sappy "great literature" delusions of its American counterpart). One of Bennett's central ideas is the notion of "subjunctive history" -- that is, history that might have been, or that some day might be. He tells a very upbeat story, turning only a little bittersweet at the end. His modestly tragic figures are not homosexuals but closeted ones, and we can only dream that high school boys are as open and accepting today, let alone 20 years ago.
"I'm not happy," says Posner, in one of the movie's most poignant insights, "but I'm not unhappy about it." He's referring to his sexuality, but in one way or another, he's speaking for all of them.
Bennett's script, adapted from his play, is laced with intelligent epigrams and polished wit, and the flawless actors all seem to wear their roles like skin. The story's only naked cliché is the school's stuffy headmaster, although one teacher actually acknowledges that he's a character from an old movie. They call him "The Early Warning," as in, this is your future if you let it happen. The lesson of The History Boys seems to be: Well then, don't.
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