“how do I define history? well it’s just one fucking thing after another”

I went in expecting something different from The History Boys (2006), something more frantic, kinetic, certainly more light on its feet; yes, I was disappointed at first if only because there’s the lingering impression that the cinematic sheen has dulled some of the stage play’s original sparkle. And yet there’s undoubtedly something, admittedly elusive, that manages to penetrate the film’s glassy veneer—that is, I think, the feeling of an underlying history not only between the characters, but among the actors themselves. The entire original cast from the National Theatre’s phenomenally successful run has been reassembled, and those several years of countless performances subtly but unmistakably alter the basic texture of the film, as it is obvious that all of the actors, most particularly the eight young men who play the students, aren’t just playing friends, they legitimately are friends. As such, they are able to effortlessly anticipate each other’s every move, mannerism and mindset, just as friends can. I for one wish there had been a little more time spent to the depicting dynamics of this very potent sense of easygoing, generous camaraderie, especially considering how rare it is to come across a group of male characters composed of such a jumble of ethnic, religious and sexual identities. And while its lamentable that many of the little hinted details about the boys remain just that (there’s the Muslim one, and there’s the rabidly Catholic one), all these little bits and hints of background serve as tantalizing little grace notes to the overarching plot.

That said, the main flaw of the filmed incarnation of The History Boys is that most of the performances are caught in an awkward transition state between stage acting and screen acting; in one of the bonus features found on the DVD many of the actors touch on how they had “become” the character over time and subsequently had to reconfigure their performances for the camera. Maybe a little time and distance between the actors and their characters would have helped tremendously, but then, that approach didn’t do much for Rent, did it?

And then there’s that gigantic white elephant that can’t be avoided… the film’s “obvious gay energy,” as my roommate put it. But in the end, it’s just one of the ways The History Boys resists being shoehorned snuggly into the “inspirational teacher” subgenre—in fact, I was quite surprised quite early on upon the realization that this is actually The Dead Poet’s Society flipped rather violently on its back and… well, I won’t pursue that image considering that several of the film’s subplots, involving ambiguous sexual orientation and pederasty (among other, related issues), have proved to be so controversial. But The History Boys is certainly not the gentle portrait of the great, inspiring teacher enjoying a golden twilight that it easily could have been; rather, it’s a rather savage depiction of the poetry-spouting free spirit on the edge of total decimation, the victim of forces found both without and within.

No, not what I expected at all, but the film is all the better because of it.

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2 thoughts on ““how do I define history? well it’s just one fucking thing after another”

  1. I liked this too, and I was also able to forgive some of its condensed and hurried treatment of intriguing subplots and peripheral characters. Perhaps this is because the film version may the only way I’ll be able to experience the play (at least with this particular cast and crew.)

    Glad I’m not alone in this regard. Not the most exciting film I saw last year, but much better than critics gave it credit for.

  2. Ali

    It’s definitely one of those flawed films I like despite itself, and I find my memories of it growing more and more fond as the little details that bugged me are being forgotten…

    And I definitely agree it got shortchanged by the critical establishment…

    -jesse

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