I t’s going to be impossible for me to write about the film of Alan Bennett’s elegiac yet rambunctious schoolboy drama The History Boys without (a) burbling about the power of the arts (and their teachers) to enliven our coarse and dreary existence and (b) falling into wishful British cadences. Indulge me, won’t you? The movie is brilliant and infectious, much like Bennett’s voice: English-deadpan but never snide, and generous to a fault. A playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and diarist, Bennett writes like a man who envies the passionate extrovert, the gaga eccentric, yet is grateful that he isn’t a slave to the same impulses. Here, his unruly, single-minded hero is Hector (Richard Griffiths), a general-education teacher at a middle-class northern English public (i.e., private) boys’ school—alarmingly obese, given to declaiming poetry, and living by a code of overload. His classes might be rambling, but his students are fully engaged; even when they razz him, they do so with sterling eloquence. Apart from a tendency to grope the boys’ genitals while carrying them on his motorbike, he is a dream instructor.
The History Boys—which opens as a movie shortly after closing as a Broadway play—takes off from the resolve of the school’s headmaster (Clive Merrison) to redouble his efforts to get his boys into Oxford or Cambridge, and his engagement of an Oxford graduate, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to prepare them for the entry exam. The youngish, skinny Irwin’s perspective is bracing in its cynicism. He does not preach conformism—just the opposite. He denounces “sheer competence.” He directs his students to express a striking and original point of view—even if they don’t believe a word of what they say. Forget about Mozart, he urges one boy: Tell them you love Tippett or Bruckner. “But I don’t know them,” says the boy.
The conflict between the two instructors’ worldviews sounds tidy, but the work is too full of dissonances and exceptions—and wayward sexuality—to be reduced to a morality play. Irwin isn’t a villain (there are no villains in Bennett’s work)—he’s wrestling with his own demons, and his philosophy of exam-taking makes sense, at least in the short term. A debate within the film revolves around the study of history. Hector relishes the “subjunctive” view, by which he means that historical events might have played out in all sorts of ways. Irwin argues for a distanced, deterministic appraisal—history as a closed book. It would be a mistake to see Bennett as fully on the side of the childlike, compulsive Hector. The History Boys suggests that his soul is divided, his philosophical openness forever at war with his melancholy fatalism.
He is certain, however, of how to hold the stage: The History Boys is explosively alive, even more so onscreen. The director, Nicholas Hytner, argued for getting the play on film before the exhilaration of the stage production had worn off—before the actors’ delight in all that thrilling dramaturgy had faded with repetition. The action is fluid—the camera keeps pace with the torrent of thought. The torrent of hormones, too. Virtually everyone is riveted by the darkly handsome Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who likes girls but likes being ogled by the tortured young Posner (Samuel Barnett), and is also queerly—so to speak—attracted to the hard pragmatism of Irwin.
The History Boys is a reminder of why Dead Poets Society was such a dishonest piece of death’s-head drivel despite its posture of life-affirming, countercultural humanism. The movie showed soulless patriarchs driving tender adolescents to suicide for the crime of reading poetry aloud in the woods. It didn’t have the guts to admit that along with that poetry there might be a circle jerk or two. A real Dead Poets Society would have the sense to reject a sanitized, simplistic Hollywood melodrama like Dead Poets Society. Hector rationalizes his misbehavior by arguing that “the transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act”—which doesn’t wash with Mrs. Lintott (the splendidly tart Frances de la Tour), who brings the same acid insights to the movie’s history boys that she does to the high ideals of the warmongering boys of history. Against her, Griffiths’s pale, tremulous Hector has no chance of clinging to his life-lies.
One aspect of The History Boys overwhelms its characters’ anguish and self-deception: the vibrant, soulful, irreverent, epigrammatic language—along with liberal infusions of Hardy, Whitman, and other bards. How can we despair when Bennett allows his teachers and students and even his mingy-minded headmaster to express themselves with such poetic force? The real enemy is disengagement—not what is said, but the unwillingness or inability to say it. The rest is never silence.
Proof that the generosity of The History Boys is indeed infectious is my Alan Bennett–esque affection for Darren Aronofsky’s lunatic Buddhist time-travel extravaganza The Fountain. I’m glad he made it, and I hope he got the Transcendental Messianic Artist virus out of his system. There is no story—only a premise. Hugh Jackman plays a man (or, really, Man) at war with death in three evolutionary phases, each intercut for maximum mystification. His sixteenth-century conquistador dodges Mayan spears en route to the Fountain of Youth (which becomes Genesis’s Tree of Life). His 21st-century scientist labors to cure cancer before his precious wife (Rachel Weisz) gives up the ghost. His futuristic bald guy in the lotus position floats in a bubble in the general direction of the oneness of it all.