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The History Boys

A Bit of Pretentiousness Mixed with Pederasty (a lethal combination)

Based on the play by the profuse Alan Bennett, The History Boys is every bit invigorating as it is offbeat. It captures the essence of being young and having the world at your feet. However, it also takes the student-teacher relationship to whole new, and disturbing, level.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner (Center Stage, The Crucible), the film follows a group of eight boys as they study for the demanding entrance exams for acceptance into England’s most prestigious and exclusive universities -- Oxford and Cambridge. Set in Yorkshire in 1983, the boys are (mostly) like any other: raging hormones, tussling, big smiles, camaraderie, but that is where the similarities to the average teenage boys ends. After all, normal teenagers don’t usually memorize whole poems or plays or songs from the British musical catalog.

This year has produced the strongest candidates so far and their school’s overzealous headmaster (played to brilliant, smarmy perfection by Clive Merrison) is determined to do everything in his power to make sure they succeed. In addition to the creative and unorthodox teaching techniques of the boys’ beloved English/General Studies teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), the school recruits Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) a Machiavellian tutor who pushes the boys to think “outside of the box” as a means to impress the university reviewers.

While the boys try to navigate the learning for learning’s sake vs. learning with an agenda paradigm, they maneuver through the throws of their adolescence. They grapples with what they are studying and they engage in any number of silly antics, which includes breaking into song and, as they say, taking the piss out of their teachers. Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing they do with their teachers.

Besides a good deal of history, The History Boys includes a good deal of something else altogether: pederasty, sexual relations between an adult and a minor of the homosexual variety. Instead of looking down upon this kind of relationship Bennett treats it glibly, as if it was a rite of passage, and in a way almost exonerates it. America may be puritanical, but a relationship between a sixty-year old teacher and a quasi non-consenting eighteen-year-old student isn’t exactly savory. Furthermore, is it not possible to have a close mentor-mentee relationship without making it sexual?

Fiddling with someone’s bits aside, all the performances are exemplary. The ensemble cast has a natural chemistry that rolls off the screen. Richard Griffiths as Hector is excellent as is Frances de la Tour as Mrs. Lintott. Furthermore, Stephen Campbell Moore’s skills as an actor far exceed his mere 27 years of age. As for the boys: Samuel Barnett as Posner and Dominic Cooper as the supremely confident and sexy Dakin are both standouts.

Very early on it becomes obvious the film is based on a play; no film could rightly have so many literary references or such spontaneous speechifying. As such, this is not a movie for everyone. Aside from the pederasty, some might even consider it pretentious. The History Boys is an extremely intelligent movie, but perhaps too smart for its own good.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars