DVD Release Date:  April 17, 2007
Theatrical Release Date:  November 21, 2006
Rating:  R (for profanity and sexual content)
Genre:  Drama/Comedy
Run Time: 112 min.
Director:  Nicholas Hytner
Actors:  Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore, Clive Merrison,

Some plays, like “Grease,” make the transition to screen with great triumph.  Others, like “The Producers,” are not quite as successful.  The latter is unfortunately the case with “The History Boys,” a six-time Tony-award winning play by English playwright Alan Bennett, which feels like a filmed play – without any cinematic adaptation.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of King George”), “The History Boys” takes us back to 1983, to a Yorkshire grammar school where a group of rowdy but extremely bright young men are attempting to get into Cambridge and Oxford.  To do so, they must receive top grades for three “A-levels” (the English equivalent of high school, but far more comparable to three undergraduate majors, in terms of specificity and depth).  They must also pass a rigorous verbal entrance examination, administered by a committee at the “college” of their choice.

At the beginning of the film, the boys all receive the required A-levels.  During this, their final semester (called a “term”), three dedicated teachers will prepare them for the required interviews.  The film centers almost exclusively around this classroom preparation and a lot of classroom antics, as well as a beloved teacher by the name of Hector (Richard Griffiths, best known as Harry Potter’s evil uncle, who does quite a good job here).

Hector is an old school teacher.  He has a brilliant understanding of his subject matter – namely poetry and literature – and he drills the boys using theatrical, interactive exercises, even as he warns them against the idolatry of learning, as symbolized by Oxbridge’s “cold stones.” 

“The best moments in reading are when you come across a thought, a word, a feeling that you thought special – particular, to you – and here it is,” Hector says, rather thoughtfully, “set down by someone else, a person you’d never met.  Maybe even someone long dead.  It’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Think of an aging, portly Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society,” coaxing his students to perform old show tunes and scenes from 1940s movies.  A gay Robin Williams, that is, because Hector likes to grope his students.  Strangely enough, they don’t mind at all.  They only make jokes about it – even though only one of the boys (Samuel Barnett) is actually gay.  Or is it two?  Because by the end of the film, Dakin, the class stud (Dominic Cooper), who happens to be sleeping with the school secretary, is very crudely propositioning the new teacher – an Oxford graduate named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who also happens to be gay.

Irwin, who’s been hired as a foil to Hector, is all about the pragmatics.  He encourages the boys to think outside the box, and to impress their examination committees with original arguments – like why Stalin might be good, rather than evil.  He also advises them to memorize a few good quotes.   Meanwhile, the evil headmaster (Clive Merrison) has been groping the secretary and trying to fire poor Hector for his behavior.