With the deck stacked too much against it for belonging to a tired genre called "the inspirational school drama" as well as for its own underwhelming ambience, The History Boys seems wholly unredeemable. And yet, weirdly enough, there are so many little things to appreciate here, I think it's the best bad movie I've seen since Elizabethtown.
Based upon a smash hit stage production that raked in more awards than Forest Whitaker, The History Boys takes place at the Cutlers' Grammar School in early 1980s Britain. Here, the latest group of impending graduates are getting ready to take that next big step toward adulthood: college. But a handful are aiming to get into the country's more prestigious universities (i.e. Oxford and Cambridge), a task the school's headmaster (Clive Merrison) wants to see successfully completed to gain more credibility in the educational community. Thus, this motley crew of youngsters, from ladies man Dakin (Dominic Cooper) to shy Posner (Samuel Barnett), sets forth on a crash course to prepare for upcoming admission exams, learning the rules of the academic game from new teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) while gleaning lessons on life, love, and poetry from beloved educator Hector (Richard Griffiths). Unfortunately, a number of obstacles emerge, including Posner's growing crush on Dakin and Hector being reprimanded for inappropriate conduct with some of his students -- and these are situations no textbook can prepare one for.
The History Boys offers a cinematic double whammy: it's a Dead Poets Society-style, "you can do it!" academic melodrama plus a film dealing with a number of touchy subjects. However, the movie spends more time congratulating itself for being so bold as to gather such heavy themes as death and young homosexuality under the same roof than it does in getting the viewers emotionally involved in these issues. Because the film frequently launches itself headfirst into new plot developments and revelations, I felt there must be some sort of pamphlet I should have read beforehand to understand what was going on.
The movie's impact is greatly lessened because its dramatic twists and turns tend to come out of left field, with director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible) almost nonchalantly addressing each new progression in the story. I'm also not sure why the film is set in the early '80s, since there's nothing included that gives the time period any particular meaning or bearing.
Still, The History Boys serves up the occasional glimmer of hope. The young actors playing the boys give stagey but spirited performances, especially Barnett as a kid who laments his unfortunate position of being not only gay but Jewish as well. Character actor Griffiths (probably best known for his brief appearances in the Harry Potter films) does a fine job taking on the script's scattershot melodrama with almost effortless ease; Hector is a role he originated onstage, and it shows in how well Griffiths brings out the character's heart and soul despite the trouble he gets himself into. Moore delivers a solid turn as a young teacher determined to ready his students for the exams; Frances de la Tour has a small but nice role as the school's history teacher; and Merrison gives such a comical, "Joe Evil" performance as the credibility-hungry headmaster, I wondered why the movie didn't acknowledge his goofiness more often.
One character in The History Boys says, "You can't polish a turd." Well, I consider this film to be one itself -- and it's every bit as awkward as the idea sounds. The story's lopsided sense of dramatics makes it difficult to recommend. However, the excellent performances and those few nuggets of dialogue in which something truly wise is conveyed make it hard to pass up watching.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R" for language and sexual content.)