The History Boys (*** out of ****)
Reviewed by Tim Sika
For all of
its lofty thematic aspirations (they are many) and the filmmakers abounding attempts for you to consider them as such (you
should) the Big Question that nags as the end credits of The History Boys roll,
is not so much what constitutes history; how important learning for its own sake is; or what is more worthwhile—knowledge
or truth—but rather, why isn’t anybody writing great songs and lyrics like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”
version of his Tony Award winning play successfully scales back its theatricality and does, to its credit, create a movie
with a movie sensibility here, but in so doing, ironically—and oddly—bleaches the original source material. The
approach is skillful, cognizant of the differences between the two mediums, but one cannot help but wonder how the sum total
effect of this story might have been better served had the playwright been more
faithful—literally—to his original text.
Nicholas Hytner and cast’s affection for this solidly resonant material seems genuine and committed (most of the cast
and crew from the play repeat their roles for the movie version) and all laudably deliver on the author’s concept. Still, this clearly-thought- out movie version of a near-great contemporary play comes
across as pinched; its thematic density and contemplative-worthy prose seemingly too buried beneath its cinematic veneer,
as well as the author’s apparent desire to make it more movie-friendly. (This could, however, work to the film’s
advantage on repeated viewings).
What is ultimately
irksome about The History Boys is that it feels downright egregious to dismiss
it out-of-hand, and yet it feels right. On the other hand, there’s something
to be savored about a film so rigorously erudite and earnestly intentioned as this one is, with enough evocative period academic
ethos, sexual politics and considered thought to fill three, four or five movies.
(When you think about it, when was the last time you remember sitting through a film laden with substantial bits of Dickens,
Hardy and Keats which actually added to its plot, or experienced the sublimity of a near-perfect Rodgers and Hart tune and
lyric, as wondrously woven into the fabric of its narrative as it is here?).