These boys are tight. They would have to be after the amount of time and dedication they’ve given to Allan Bennett’s play, THE HISTORY BOYS, just recently released as a feature film, directed by Nicolas Hytner. This group of eight young actors originated their roles on the London stage and stayed with the success through the year long run. They then found themselves on stage together again in the Broadway production, which ran for almost another year. And now, these talented fellas find themselves on screen together, some two years after they first formed their gang. Theirs is a gang built on brilliance and banter. These young men have all performed so well that they are all within reach of admission to Oxford, an educational pinnacle that they all believe will set them up for life. They are on the edge of completing their studies; they are on the verge of discovering their true selves; they are on the cusp of their very own lives. The energy these boys feel pushing them forward is infectious and it makes for an exhilarating film experience. All they need to do now is put aside their confusions about sex, class and identity long enough to master their field of concentration, history. For mastering history ensures these boys a bright future.
The boys are not the only ones being schooled either. THE HISTORY BOYS offers the audience its own insights that make it a rich and provocative film. As the school these boys attend also has its own interests in seeing these boys make it into Oxford, they hire a coach of sorts to give them an edge. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) must show these boys that understanding history is not just memorizing facts but rather exploring the era to see what these facts are covering for. They must then take these more rounded views and learn to spin them in a fashion that grabs the readers’ attention. In other words, they must learn the art of show. What they end up learning along the way is that, while sprinkling your arguments with little known nuggets of information might make for a more colorful debate, nothing speaks louder than an effective formulation of your own original thoughts. This is quite the challenge for these boys as speaking for themselves does not fall in line with always saying exactly what everyone wants to hear.
Pleasing other people and pleasing yourself is a difficult line to tow for the “history boys.” This is especially relevant when there are students and teachers on either side of the line. The boys pit new boy, Irwin, directly against their “general studies” teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths, a Tony Award winner for this role). Between both supposed role models, the boys take turns trying to capture their teacher’s attention, and in some cases, affection. It is as though their existence and opinions are somewhat more valid if they are applauded by their authority figures. As we rarely see any of the boys’ parents, these two teachers are the closest things they’ve got. As the boys play their games with the teachers though, it is the teachers that unknowingly and unexpectedly end up addicted to the attention feigned upon them, as though being the central figure in these boys’ lives somehow means they have the same boundless futures ahead of them. Like their parents, the boys must come to terms with the humanity of their teachers. However, unlike the boys’ parents, the teachers must conceal these vulnerable sides of themselves in order to maintain authority and protect their own emotional investments. After all, when these boys graduate, they will leave their teachers behind them.
Aside from an obsession with fondling his students, Hector also has an obsession with the subjunctive. The theme runs throughout and forces the boys, the teachers and the audience to question the fragility of fact. History is most often summed up with facts but all of these could have been entirely different if there had been a slight alteration in the circumstances in which they took place. As these boys decide whether they will be the ones to make history or to react to it, THE HISTORY BOYS affirms that their futures, no matter how bright they might seem in the present, can give way to any number of possibilities caused by circumstance. And despite all the life the boys naturally exude, despite all of their seemingly boundless opportunities, one day in the not-so-distant-future, their lives will also be the subject of history.