It’s 1983 at a grammar school in Sheffield, but really it could be anywhere in England at any time in the past few decades, despite the splattering of Smiths and New Order on the soundtrack, as eight boys prepare to take the entrance exam that could propel them to Oxford and Cambridge to study history. They certainly don’t behave like most sixth-formers. Posner (Samuel Barnett), a spotty and vulnerable boy, openly touts his affection for Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the confident class hunk, who, despite his fumblings with the headmaster’s assistant (Georgia Taylor), has a bit of thing – perhaps reciprocated – for their young teaching temp, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). Lording over them is their passionate and dedicated general studies teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths), who sneers at the very thought of the kind of thrusting exam-training that Irwin propounds and runs unorthodox classes during which the boys act out brothel-scenes in French or re-enact moments from ‘Now, Voyager’ and ‘Brief Encounter’ (both films which Bennett, in his memoirs, recalls from childhood, a distinct sign of how personal this film is to him).
Hector’s passion comes at a price: each evening, he likes to give a different boy a lift home on his motorbike and then cop a feel mid-journey, much to the amusement of his eyeball-rolling students. Most of them oblige, but, crucially, they also tell him where to shove it at the moment when hand meets thigh. The boys are in control. They play Hector’s game in return for his unique teaching. They’re aware, too, that he is weak (‘a secret sorrow’, Bennett calls it) and needs support; in one very moving scene, he breaks down in tears before them.
It’s an actors’ film. Griffiths gives a heartbreaking performance of charisma and weakness reminiscent of his Monty in ‘Withnail and I’. The boys make a fine ensemble, and Moore balances cockiness and unease. The play’s rock is Frances de la Tour’s Mrs Lintott, neither eccentric like Hector nor careerist like Irwin. (‘A grope is a grope,’ she declares. ‘It is not the annunciation.’) She’s a straightforward teacher, old-fashioned, dedicated, sensible, dull even. She’s unwavering, whereas the men around her are as solid as sandcastles; more dynamic maybe, but ready to crumble at any second. Even the army-like, little British headmaster (Clive Merrison, with a performance straight out of ‘Dad’s Army’) is a grades-grabbing fraud, all straight-back and no substance: ‘I was a geographer. I went to Hull,’ he says, barely concealing his own shame with a mask of bravado.
Bennett has written elsewhere that he looks back on his own schooldays and remembers nothing of the exuberance of ‘The History Boys’. No larger-than-life teachers. No schoolboy love affairs. He remembers his own sexuality as hovering somewhere between the latent and non-existent. Yet he admits the play – and so the film – is rooted in his own experience. The behaviour he applies to the pupils must be seen partly as wish-fulfilment – a heightened, superbly and comically written drama within the real and recognisable confines of a drab school. Most audiences will find it (maybe surprisingly given the Brit-com marketing campaign) to be a very gay film, and we should view the boys’ comfort at same-sex attraction and lack of homophobia as hopeful thinking on Bennett’s part, a dramatic rejection of repression and longing, and a celebration of emotional honesty as central to intellectual blossoming. (In one scene, Irwin and Dakin literally hide in the closet from their prosaic, straight-as-a-die headmaster.)
The transfer from stage to film isn’t entirely trouble-free. There’s a conflict, if only slight, between the film’s more intimate scenes, such as the tender exchange between Hector and Posner as they discuss war poetry, which are shot in close-up, and those ensemble scenes which retain theatrical blocking and sit oddly with the realism of the film’s location work. A few musical montages jar too, not least one which resembles an A-ha music video reshot on an Oxford quad. It’s not the most cinematic of adaptations, but that barely matters when the performances and the writing – with quotable lines aplenty – are both so smart.