On Broadway, where it won six Tonys and became a modest hit despite the absence of a Disney cartoon character in the cast, Alan Bennett’s dog-eared paean to the wonders and horrors of grammar school life carried a nearly mythic resonance. No matter the 1980s Sheffield setting, it was instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever been young, questioned the purpose of a slide rule, and felt like the world was yours for the taking. Made by the same creative principals—Bennett, director Nicholas Hytner, and a superb cast who have now been with their roles for far longer than a term—the film version of The History Boys is a lesser thing, more fixed in space and time and rendered almost unbearably “cinematic” in patches by Hytner’s gymnastic camerawork. Yet the ideas and feelings of the piece remain so rich that it almost doesn’t matter. The “history” under discussion here is that of history itself, as the classroom of the beloved Hector (the ebulliently rumpled Richard Griffiths) becomes a crucible for the debate over learning for its own sake versus “teaching to the test.” But if The History Boys arrives at a perilous moment for culture and learning, it nevertheless instills in you hope for the youth of tomorrow, and a newfound appreciation for the lyrical value of compound adjectives.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 7, 2006