I just watched "The History Boys" on television. There are, I suppose, quite a few flaws in the film. The central conceit, that a portly history teacher with a fondness for giving rides on his motorcycles to his male students and then reaching for a grope during opportune moments, with the grudging acceptance of the boys might be offensive. A reviewer has noted what would happen if it had been an all-girls school. Would there not be outrage?
The eponymous "history boys" from which the film gets its names are from a British boarding school of all-male students. It appears to be 1980s England. The headmaster, balding and unimaginative, has one goal in mind, which is to get as many boys into Oxbridge as possible, and to this end, he's hired Irwin, himself an Oxford man, to coach the boys into writing clever essays that will draw the attention of the readers that admit these men into higher education.
The previous time or times I watched this, I was not teaching, so I didn't think of the film from a teacher's perspective. There is a strong streak of idealism in the film. The kids, with perhaps the exception of the jockish Rudge, all seem committed to their studies. In discussions, they challenge the teachers. When Irwin, played by Stephen Campbell Moore, shows up, he offers an alternative view of history than Hector.
Hector is the idealist. He wants students engaged in history because he has a passion for literature. He finds truth in the fiction stories of the great masters. But, he also doesn't want the reverence to literature to overwhelm the students with too great a level of respect. So, he has the students singing songs from musicals and watching classic movies, to make those stories, mass-appealing as they may be, as relevant as the classics.
Irwin, by contrast, is the pragmatist. He sees admission as a game. While his students are technically proficient--they know their history backwards and forwards, their essays are fact-filled and parrot back the books they've read. He challenges them to bring an unusual perspective, to make the essays interesting. The history boys seem keen on this, even as Hector bristles at the notion of history as game.
Mrs. Lintott provides the female voice of reason, counterbalancing the foibles of Hector who, despite his love of teaching, can't seem to abandon his infatuation for his students, with one notable exception.
If the movie uses Dakin as the ultra-hip guy who sleeps with secretaries and seems more than plenty bi-curious, it is Posner, the gay Jewish geek, who is the moral center of the film. Posner knows he has a crush on Dakin, and even Dakin knows this too. Dakin's a bit too cool to get involved, and he feels Posner is a bit too young.
There are perhaps three key scenes in the film. First, Posner has a discussion with Irwin and says that he is homosexual and that he has a crush on Dakin and he knows it can't be returned. In a way, this confession is about Posner, but it is also about Irwin. Irwin wants to sympathize, but he's afraid to reveal who he truly is to Posner, mostly out of deference to the teacher-student relationship. Posner has another discussion with Hector about a story he's read and Hector tells him that novels are compelling because sometimes you have a feeling, one you think is completely personal, and realize that such a feeling is there in written word by a man you've never met, and perhaps by someone long since dead.
Another key scene is Irwin and Hector talking in the hallway shortly after Hector has been told he's being let go because of his indiscretions. Indeed, Mrs. Lintott seems to feel that those indiscretions, as poor judgment as they may be, are perhaps not as severe as they could be, that as a teacher that cares about what he teaches, his contributions to a student's development more than offsets bad behavior. Hector understands that Irwin himself is attracted to the boys and even as the boys think of Irwin as cooler, he advises Irwin to restrain himself, in particular, in his infatuation with Dakin.
To up the ante, Dakin wants to fool around with Irwin, especially after he has found out (like many of his classmates) that he's going to a top-notch college. It's his way of saying thanks. Irwin is uncomfortable at the advances, and eventually gives in to the idea of meeting Dakin. This discomfort is well-acted even if the situation is contrived, but it does touch on potential situations a teacher might find him/herself.
I'll quickly go over the other guys. Akhtar is an Indian Muslim. His character is not fleshed out that much and his inclusion probably says as much about modern British society's diversity than anything else. James Corden plays portly Timms, but is also a character that isn't that well-developed. He's there as the token big guy. Apparently, the actor has gone on to be in a successful British sitcom.
Russell Tovey plays Rudge, the athlete. In a way, his view is the most honest. He doesn't care for book learning at all, despite being in a prep school. He plays the game somewhat, but thinks it's a waste of time. He dislikes the guile needed, and just wants to play sports.
Andrew Knott plays Lockwood, who is not given much of a personality, and is there, one imagines, to be good looking. One other character is the token African Brit, and like Akhtar, doesn't have that much of a personality.
Jamie Parker plays Scripps. He's the Catholic, and is considered a bit of a cipher by best friend, Dakin, who wonders what Scripps does with all this religion. It does seem the writing is a touch lazy for Scripps, and his Catholicism is played, if not for laughs, than not entirely seriously either. His religion is a novelty to Dakin and the film treats it as such.
The two boys that matter most are Dakin and Posner. Dakin, confident and outgoing, ambitious and willing to take chances, and Posner, scared and timid, not sure how to deal with his sexuality, and having a hopeless crush on Dakin. Interestingly enough, Hector never gives Posner a ride, the one guy who might truly be interested in Hector's advances, while the others consider his advances more a nuisance. Hector probably senses how conflicted Posner is and doesn't want the aftermath of any encounter.
The accident that ends the movie is something of a convenience. Because Hector takes Irwin for a bike ride, one that ends in Hector's death and Irwin's injury, Irwin and Dakin never get together for Dakin to "thank" Irwin.
If the movie works, it works at many levels. From a teacher's perspective, it's the total engagement of the students. So often, students are disengaged. They wonder why they are in classes, and they are unable to formulate good questions, take decisive stances. It's a level of maturity few students, even after four years, ever reach. To find such precocity as the students in this film must make teachers giddily happy, even as they recognize the fantasy aspects.
When Hector is going to be let go, he wants to make an announcement to his class, but the boys are trying to be clever and Hector is unable to get his pending firing out in words, and breaks down and cries, realizing the only thing he truly cared about--teaching, was going to be taken away from him. Mrs. Lintott is sympathetic. She sees the headmaster as a bean-counter, one who only worries about placements and test scores, and not about educating the person.
Although the film isn't strictly about Posner, his story is the link between Hector, Irwin, and the history boys. All three are gay. All three find hurt as they suppress their feelings (in a way, the film is old-fashioned, never seeming to take the viable stance that these people might find someone who is also gay to make them happy), infatuated by straight guys, and never able to find a relationship that works.
Of all the history boys, he is most like Hector, and becomes a teacher. And like Hector, he is fond of the boys he teaches, but he restrains himself, and as much as it hurts, he says he's not unhappy either. In a way, the film touches two aspects of teaching. One is the act of teaching itself, the inspiration and engagement to intellectual pursuits, and one is more the seedy underside, the idea that a teacher is in a position of respect and that students are at a challenging time in their lives and may be victims of untoward advances.
For its variety of flaws, so much of the film resonates, from its decidedly too-brainy kids, to the different views of how to teach students, to that idyllic time in life somewhere between high school and college where students are only asked to hang out and learn, and the responsibilities of a job seem so far away.
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