A syllabus of important movies would have its share of stories about schoolboys and their masters. Many, such as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Dead Poets Society," have become popular classics. For two lesser-known but near perfect examples, there's "The Browning Version" with Michael Redgrave and Louis Malle's "Au Revoir, les Enfants."
"The History Boys," directed by Nicholas Hytner (from a screenplay by Alan Bennett adapted from his own award-winning stage play), is too pat and predictable around the edges to stand at the head of the class. But it has a major strength in its ability to present life as something everyday while making everyday life momentous.
The story is set in Yorkshire in the mid-1980s, though except for some snippets of The Smiths the time is not given much importance. The group of boys in the title wants desperately to go to Oxford from a middling English school that desperately wants the prestige of sending them there. The boys are at the top of their class (attending the equivalent of an American high school) and are taking one postgraduate term to study for the entrance exam to the country's elite learning center. To help them are teachers Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Dorothy (Frances de la Tour).
Hector specializes in literature and film but provides his young men with classes in "general studies," and Dorothy is a history teacher. If you don't feel these two have the width and breadth of Western learning covered, you agree with the school's headmaster (Clive Merrison), who brings in a spunky young ringer named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) to help polish them.
One of the reasons these types of movies are popular is because people at least most people really do go to school. But because there have been so many examples of this kind of film, they have a hard time escaping their own conventions the dour headmaster, the upstart instructor, the growing pains and life lessons. This headmaster, as many who have come before, is appropriately lemon-faced. He looks down with exasperation at anything striking him as not suitably scholastic. That includes the boys' practical joking, as well as Hector's affection for taking them on long rides through the countryside on the back of his motorcycle. Along with the headmaster's stern visage and Hector's mild harassments, the boys face a dilemma, as they must. But their problem is not open to easy answers, and surprisingly, the movie doesn't try to provide any.
The two main forces in the boys' lives by the time we are midway through the writings of Hardy and the history of the Third Reich are Hector and Irwin. Irwin wants to be a bomb going off in their heads, to shake them up with unconventional thinking so they can turn their writing from perfect but dull lists of facts into magical bursts of outrage. Unfortunately, Hector got to those heads first and filled them with poetry. Subtly, we can see the boys taking sides, between the slipperiness of the tongue and the concreteness of the eye. When the two instructors are giving their lectures together, minor battles are waged. When Posner, one of Hector's most gifted students, is congratulated by Irwin for making an interesting point, he objects: "It's not a point, it's what I think!"
In most movies of this type, the students are stand-ins for the audience, who are supposed to learn the lessons too, regardless of whether it's father-son relationships in "Dead Poets Society" or whether Tootie should go all the way in "The Facts of Life." "The History Boys" stands apart, most of the time, by giving those lessons without the answers. This has made some audience members and critics alike uncomfortable, even nervous, considering some of the subject matter. They want to know, for example, why Hector is sympathetic and even an honorable character, even though he suffers from the impulse to touch his students inappropriately (charges of outright pedophilia are possible but dicey since his wards are high-school-age graduates and, at any rate, don't seem to mind).
Irwin suffers his own inner turmoil as well, and the students' own sexual adventures do not fit the cultural norms we're used to. Most of them seem OK with ambivalence, even though their U.S. audience will be accustomed to plunking down their ticket money for anything but. Ambivalence, however, is one of the strongest themes here. The ending suffers from a clumsy device intended to wrap things up, but it drives the point home. They're the best and the brightest, who've studied hard to go to the best schools. But when they get where they're going, will they have taken any of their lessons with them? (R) 109 min. **** S