The History Boys

About 2/3 of the way through The History Boys, there’s a scene where the boys in question — a group of talented British schoolchildren on the brink of making it to Oxford or Cambridge — are being tested by three teachers on their admissions interview skills. A few minutes in, without any kind of reasonable provocation, one of the teachers (played by Frances de la Tour) stands up and begins talking about women’s place in history. I think it’s meant to be something of a rousing, feel-good moment, but I was left unroused, being too busy trying to figure out what it had to do with the rest of the scene.

Of course, it didn’t. The History Boys, a film about education, adolescence, and a snuggly sort of pedophilia, started out as a play and it shows through almost every piece of celluloid. That isn’t always a bad thing. The Big Kahuna was one of the stagiest flicks ever and was all the more focused and interesting because of it. But that story also had a linear logic to it conducive to cinema. The History Boys is the sort of play where people can break out into song or monologue or jump through time all within a scene. Which is fantastic. In person, that sort of thing is very exciting for its immediacy and because we understand the limitations of the theater. On film it feels unnatural. I don’t know if it’s the acoustics of movie theaters or what, but I am simply never, ever excited by actors reading poetry or singing songs on screen. Rarely is making speeches any better.

While an out of place monologue or two could be forgiven, the language itself appears to be the glue holding the play together (not having seen it, I’m giving the original the benefit of the doubt), and when the language fails, we’re left with a thin story with no narrative drive. Someday I might like to see the invigorating debate over education, the poetry recitation, and the snappy one-liners in person. But as a film, The History Boys is dull.

**

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