December 21, 2006

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The History Boys (R)
A group of English school boys straight out of an early MTV new wave video are studying for Oxford and Cambridge during their last semester at school in the strange The History Boys, a sex-filled argument about how to approach scholarship that was first a Tony-winning play.

The History Boys suggests a form of scholarship almost unrecognizable when compared to anything in this country. Set in 1983 England, the dozen-or-so boys are done with what we’d call high school and preparing for the exams and interviews that would get them in to the top-flight school of their choice. They have, essentially, three teachers shepherding their progress — the style-over-substance Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), the substance-over-style Hector (Richard Griffiths) and the thoroughly unimpressed Mrs. Lincott (Frances de la Tour). She’s seen it all and knows the score — enough to appreciate even the crasser side of Irwin’s teach-to-the-exam style and to register absolutely no surprise when the pumpkin-shaped Hector gets in trouble for getting a little too touchy-feely with the boys. The boys themselves seem shocked that someone would have complained — they brush off Hector’s timid advances with an “oi” and a running joke about how it’s part of his teaching style.

Plus, sexual fumbling is not unknown in their own peer group. Dakin (Dominic Cooper) chases the tarty secretary of the school’s headmaster but also finds himself pondering an affair with Irwin. Dakin also knows that he’s the object of the fair-haired, fellow student Posner’s (Samuel Barnett) affections but has no return interest. The other boys seem to be waiting with varying degrees of patience for their college careers when they can kick-start what they hope will be a prolific series of romantic adventures.

Disappointment, achievement and the value of learning are at issue here but the movie’s real interest seems to be in the natty dialogue tossed off by boys who seem about 20 years too mature. This disconnect would perhaps be more injurious to the movie if the conversation weren’t as good as it is. I didn’t mind, so much, that the story had a fakey, play-like feel to it when the boys spouted little gems such as the observation by Timms (James Corden), the group’s disinterested athlete, that history is just “one f-ing thing after another.” The best scene was Mrs. Lincott’s dissection of history for its male-focused, women-excluding nature. Her speech nearly makes you forget the creepiness of the teachers with sex on their brain or the sense that even in all-boys British schools a guy won’t go mock-free if he sings a love song to another guy during class.

Choose to shrug these things off and you’ll get plenty of snappy laugh lines and lots of highly literate argument about history. From the English Beat wardrobe to the reenactments of Betty Davis movies, there isn’t a thing about The History Boys that offers up realism but the movie manages to be moderately enjoyable all the same. B-

Rated R for language and sexual content. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and written by Alan Bennett (from his play), The History Boys is an hour and 44 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight. The movie is scheduled to open on Friday, Dec. 22, at Wilton Town Hall Theater.