“History is just one fucking thing after another.”

Just watched The History Boys. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long time, and it made me remember why I chose to study English Literature and, most importantly, History.

(Beware. Minor spoilers await all who enter here.)

The dialogue is electric, theatrical and clever but never quite losing the feel of conversation. It’s all tricks and dancing metaphors, veiled meanings. Aside from being bloody hilarious, it’s also frighteningly perceptive. It’s one of the main things that make the characters seem so very, wrenchingly real.

Speaking of that: characters are painted with light, easy strokes; even the boys who get the smallest time on the screen are defined and relateable, built up perfectly by the things they say and do. In just a few key moments, we get a sense of their distinctive voice – of who they are – and we root for them.

This film also illustrates so perfectly the problems of the educational system: how bureaucracy and superficial checkbox-ticking can replace passion and honesty; how things are allowed to slide because they’re good enough, rather than actually good; how the system forgets that the students within it are people, with needs, personalities and agency; how it’s so often seen as more important to be rich than happy. (Interesting how the student who takes to heart Hector’s impractical, idealistic teaching is ultimately the one who ends up unhappiest, even as the play suggests Hector himself is a kind of anti-hero.) It also talks about the way we so often forget that our teachers, too, are people.

Things are never simple here. Teachers who are otherwise earnest and brilliant educators are sexual deviants (but then again, the film seems to ask, are they?). Students who spout witty quotations are naive fools and yet somehow smarter than the teachers. Something which seems like a comedy has at its core an elegiac yearning – a strange, intrinsic melancholy that sometimes makes you want to cry even as you’re laughing.

The performances here are sterling: every actor here is pitch-perfect. Griffiths, a veteran at this sort of thing (and a sad loss to movies), doesn’t so much play Hector as is him. He – deservedly – gets some of the best scenes in the film: the debate about how to teach the Holocaust; the painful, intensely lonely reading of Hardy’s Drummer Hodge that’s rife with unspoken words and parallels. (Barnett, too, as the young, gay student Posner, shines; the two of them and the way they play off each other is brilliant. The ending for that character and what he becomes is astonishingly fitting, if sad. That and his only partially insincere little performance to Dakin of “Bewitched…” are stand-out moments). Meanwhile, Campbell Moore is all understated brilliance, communicating far too many things with just the slightest change in expression, and de la Tour is utterly convincingly world-weary.

And the boys? Cooper is brilliant, all flashy, easy charm as Dakin; you wonder whether to egg him on or rail against him constantly. His performance here makes me wonder why he hasn’t become a bigger star now he’s started doing “proper” Hollywood movies. The banter is easy and perfectly-timed. Tovey and Parker, while their roles aren’t at the forefront, play them earnestly and well, as does Corden. Everyone has their moments; no unnecessary effort is expended – the way all the younger actors play their roles is natural and comfortable but still immensely touching.

The History Boys is a very British Dead Poets Society with all the petty, ugly, sometimes gorgeous shit that your teachers neglected to mention left in. It does what all great literature does: it make us look in the mirror and think a little more about what we find. It’s smart and cynical without ever losing its heart, and it’s also terrifyingly honest.

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