Sheffield in the early 1980’s, and a class of sixth-formers are returning to school for one last term to prepare to sit their entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge. Yes, Wanderers, today we’re exploring the difference between remembrance and remembering the truth with The History Boys. The film is based on the play by Alan Bennett, which opened at the National Theatre in London in 2004, and received critical acclaim when it was released in 2006.
The plot follows a group of eight Oxbridge candidates as they return for a seventh-term entrance exam in History. The General Studies teacher, known by staff and boys alike by his nickname “Hector” (Richard Griffiths), is their favourite, and works alongside their deputy head and regular History teacher, Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour). Hector, an eccentric teacher, delights in knowledge for its own sake, but the headmaster ambitiously wants the school to move up the academic league table.
The headmaster, Felix (Clive Merrison), hires a contract teacher named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to assist Hector and Mrs Lintott in preparing the boys for the Oxbridge entrance exams. Irwin’s style is utterly different from Hector’s and Mrs Lintott’s.
During the course of the film, it becomes apparent that there’s more on the boys’ minds than simply passing their exams. Hector, for all his jollity, has issues of his own, Posner and Dakin have some unresolved tension, and Rudge doesn’t seem to be quite sure what the point of it all is. The boys learn poetry, French and a variety of other things under Hector’s tuition, and learn to challenge everything they’ve ever been taught under Irwin’s. Poor Mrs Lintott is largely left to hold it all together.
The road to exams is not as smooth as the boys – the school’s top achievers, after all, and used to finding things easy – and their teachers might have hoped. Trips to visit the universities they hope to apply to result in some profound quotes from Hector and some good photo opportunities for the group, as well as some tense interview situations.
Exam results day brings surprises in a number of ways, and then it’s time to look to the future…
Oh, Wanderers, this film is full of subplot and LGBT* issues which I haven’t even begun to touch on in this review, but despite the potentially gritty subject matter and hinted-at child abuse, this film is intensely moving and surprisingly funny. Filled with Bennett’s trademark dead-pan humour which lifts the heavy subject matter, The History Boys is a film I’d highly recommend.
I would give this film a 4 out of 5, simply because some of the darker themes could be handled with a little more sensitivity.
Hannah Carter (is going to go and cry in a corner)