Looking for Class:
Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge
by Bruce Feiler
"The History Boys"
The most impressive thing about this movie adapted from a play is the barrage of academic cleverness and teenage rowdyism so fully realized by so sharp an ensemble of actors. That the level of language and scholarship is so high is a further sign of its theatrical origins.
The accomplished lads here are students in training for a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Teachers and headmaster are completely focused on landing their seniors the prize of acceptance to such lofty institutions of learning. Bragging rights, to be sure.
The disconnect is in the students' utter concentration on how witty and challenging they can be in rebelliousness rather than in the personality traits that will ensure the achievement of their goals. But, therein lies the drama, which includes humor, sexual byplay and much competitive shrewdness.
Because of an obsessed headmaster (Clive Merrison) desiring total acceptance to these leading universities as a measure of his schools superiority, he hires young teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to augment the English Master Hector (Richard Griffiths) in prepping them and improving their test scores. This subjects the all-male class to two styles of teaching and discipline, which isn't such a bad idea.
In the course of all this teaching and training, there is poetry, language, history, and a muddle of heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual well... sex. As if that isn't enough to contend with for this unruly set of academically gifted boys, there's a bit of perversion to help spice things up, and a calamitous, climactic lethal accident to end the semester on a bittersweet note of irony.
The highly accomplished cast is more finely tuned to their individual characters for having mostly been carried over from the play's cast. Frances de la Tour does much with her almost peripheral role as a rare woman on the faculty, taking it beyond what might have been a token presence. But the positive features of the thorough familiarity with the material includes the negative aspect of overexamined theatricality.
Directory Nicholas Hytner working from playright Alan Bennett's screenplay, does elevate what might have been another lower class comedy from the British Isles into a more substantial course of higher learning with serious and comedic values, if somewhat stagy. It might also have been improved without all the sexual under- and overtones which seem arbitrarily imposed elements as though to express Bennett and Hytner's agenda to suggest the prevalence of alternative choices in society.
I'd suggest the film might impact a wider audience had this strain of sexual baiting been less insistent. I found the seduction-reward scene between teacher Irwin and incredibly manipulative student Dakin, for example, close to extraneous and distasteful. Would that the dramatic direction had been composed of fewer wrong notes in the scheme of a 17 to 18-year old world of education.
But, that point aside, it is a cleverly entertaining if somewhat acerbic and hyper-paced romp into British academic territory.
~~ Jules Brenner