As a play, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys scored a smash hit in the West End and on Broadway. And it’s as a play that it’s been filmed – in fact altogether too much so. As we’re repeatedly reminded in the stagestruck extras, the film was made immediately after its run at the National, using the unchanged stage cast, director and – of course – writer. Fine, in that everybody was thoroughly into their roles. Not so fine, in that what we get for the most part is big, brash theatrical performances. People give long, frighteningly articulate speeches pitched to the back of the stalls. Tell, not show, is the order of the day.
The setting is a Yorkshire grammar school, early ’80s. Eight of the brightest six-formers are being crammed for Oxbridge. Fearing that traditionalist history teacher Mrs Linnott (Frances de la Tour) and high-camp English teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths) aren’t pushing the lads hard enough, the ultra-ambitious Head (Clive Merrison) brings in bright, intense young supply teacher Mr Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). Cue personality clashes and much philosophical chat about the true aims of education.
This being Bennett, there are some terrific lines and scenes with that archetypal, Bennettesque mix of humour and poignancy. But the sentimental wash that was held at bay finally overwhelms the movie, rendering its social insights innocuous. “A perfect gift for Mother’s Day” suggests the PR handout. Hard to argue with that one.