FILM FORTNIGHT: The History Boys

OK, back to films this time, specifically The History Boy. Something of an old favourite of mine, the kind of thing I occasionally catch myself running through in my head. And with the death just a few weeks ago of one of the film’s stars Richard Griffiths, it seemed only right to turn my gaze to it now. So…,

There is a particular type of film that attempts to be compelling by getting rid of almost all the distractions of plot in favour of plundering the rich resources posed by character, behaviour, context and emotional development. The storyline of such films tend to be based around small scenes that mean very little on their own but serve largely as a framework for the important parts of the film itself to play out around them; a nice idea, if it can be pulled off. Done wrong and we are left with two hours of tedium whilst a bunch of theatrical hipsters pretend to hold the emotional and intellectual high ground, and a lot is left down to the sheer ability of the actors concerned to execute their roles; it’s one of the reasons why reading Shakespeare out of a textbook is so much less compelling than a well-executed live performance, and why so many schoolchildren get turned off by it. That, combined with the overly florid Elizabethan language, and the fact that they have to study Twelfth Night.

The History Boys is, thankfully, burdened by neither of the latter two issues, but its format makes the former a major point of potential worry; set in a Sheffield school in 1983, our story opens with eight history student getting their A-level grades, and very well they’ve done too. For this reason, the school (and its rather ambitious headmaster, Clive Merrison’s Felix) encourages them to apply to read history at Oxbridge, for which they need to take an entrance exam that will require another term’s schooling and revision. The other main players are their teachers: history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Francis de la Tour), specialist exam-preparation teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the colourful General Studies teacher Hector (Griffiths). “General Studies” here being taken as a rather loose term.

The teachers are the main source of the film’s drama; Irwin, recruited at the start of the film, offers up a totally different approach to the boys’ previous teaching style and, indeed, a different perspective on history itself, which results in one or two moments that strike a little close to the bone for some. Then we have Hector, who doesn’t teach so much as mess around in a classroom for a couple of hours, before offering the boys a lift home on his moped and casually groping them along the way. Whilst the boys have an amicable relationship with him over this, it’s kind of obvious to see that this isn’t going to end well.

It should be pointed out that all of this is established within the first 20 minutes of the film, and indeed there is practically no plot movement in the centre of the film; it is all left open purely for character interaction and development. This ‘interaction’ is frequently rather risqué in nature, but for such a serious, deeply emotional film it’s surprising the extent to which the film seems determined to have fun and enjoy itself; credit must go to Alan Bennett (the writer of the original play) for managing to inject so much humour into the piece. The actors also appear suffused with the spirit of the thing, and turn out some wonderful performances; special mention must go to Dominic Cooper for a starring turn as the sexually-charged, rather aggressively bright Dakin, and Griffiths, who at no point in the entire film looks like he’s acting rather than just doing what comes naturally. However, none of that changes the fact that this is a film built around practically nothing happening, and looking back now I struggle to visualise how the rather confused web of scenes fit together, and how indeed the film manages to make any sense at all.

However, no matter how much I try to apply fridge logic to the situation, the fact is that it simply does; it’s just that well done. Nicholas Hytner’s film is so engrossing and insidiously enthralling that everything becomes just about the characters, as if one is in fact part of this eclectic little group and this is your life playing out around you. These are your friends, your mentors, the people you laugh with, the people you cry over; it’s a slice of life at its most real yet most compelling, and most beautiful. 99 times out of 100 this sort of thing surely wouldn’t work, but by its being sit at a point in these boys’ lives that is so pivotal, and by framing it in such a fantastically well-executed manner, the realism of the event manages to feel purposeful rather than meandering. There’s something deeply satisfying, like watching an old friend come good, about watching the way these characters develop and grow over 100 minutes’ screentime, and it’s all very… right, somehow. And that’s even before we get to the ending; a tear-jerking third act that manages to hit every point on the emotional spectrum before cascading into a bittersweet crescendo of beauty and hope that would strike dumb even the most loquacious of critics. I could spend all day analysing every little intricate moment of these few minutes, every emotional tug and every moment of simultaneous hope and pain, but am restricted by both my wish not to spoil anything and my wish not to write something 5000 words long.

The History Boys is many things; relatively slow, rather lacking in plot and based around a decidedly unconventional idea being among them. But it honestly doesn’t matter; when a film attempts to mean this much, and pulls it off with such spectacular aplomb, any attempt to degrade it somewhat misses the point. If you haven’t watched it yet, then you’re missing out on something special.

Why do we call a writer a bard, anyway?

In Britain at the moment, there are an awful lot of pessimists. Nothing unusual about this, as it’s hardly atypical human nature and my country has never been noted for its sunny, uplifting outlook on life as a rule anyway. Their pessimism is typically of the sort adopted by people who consider themselves too intelligent (read arrogant) to believe in optimism and nice things anyway, and nowadays tends to focus around Britain’s place in the world. “We have nothing world-class” they tend to say, or “The Olympics are going to be totally rubbish” if they wish to be topical.

However, whilst I could dedicate an entire post to the ramblings of these people, I would probably have to violate my ‘no Views’ clause by the end of it, so will instead focus on one apparent inconsistency in their argument. You see, the kind of people who say this sort of thing also tend to be the kind of people who really, really like the work of William Shakespeare.

There is no denying that the immortal Bard (as he is inexplicably known) is a true giant of literature. He is the only writer of any form to be compulsory reading on the national curriculum and is known of by just about everyone in the world, or at least the English-speaking part. He introduced between 150 and 1500 new words to the English language (depending on who you believe and how stringent you are in your criteria) as well as countless phrases ranging from ‘bug-eyed monster’ (Othello) to ‘a sorry sight’ (Macbeth), wrote nearly 40 plays, innumerable sonnets and poems, and revolutionised theatre of his time. As such he is idolised above all other literary figures, Zeus in the pantheon of the Gods of the written word, even in our modern age. All of which is doubly surprising when you consider how much of what he wrote was… well… crap.

I mean think about it- Romeo and Juliet is about a romance that ends with both lovers committing suicide over someone they’ve only known for three days, whilst Twelfth Night is nothing more than a romcom (in fact the film ‘She’s the Man’ turned it into a modern one), and not a great one at that. Julius Caesar is considered even by fans to be the most boring way to spend a few hours in known human history, the character of Othello is the dopiest human in history and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about some fairies falling in love with a guy who turns into a donkey. That was considered, by Elizabethans, the very height of comedic expression.

So then, why is he so idolised? The answer is, in fact, remarkably simple: Shakespeare did stuff that was new. During the 16th century theatre hadn’t really evolved from its Greek origins, and as such every play was basically the same. Every tragedy had the exact same formulaic plot line of tragic flaw-catharsis-death, which, whilst a good structure used to great effect by Arthur Miller and the guy who wrote the plot for the first God of War game, does tend to lose interest after 2000 years of ceaseless repetition. Comedies & satyrs had a bit more variety, but were essentially a mixture of stereotypes and pantomime that might have been entertaining had they not been mostly based on tired old stories, philosophy and mythology and been so unfunny that they required a chorus (who were basically a staged audience meant to show how the audience how to react). In any case there was hardly any call for these comedies anyway- they were considered the poorer cousins to the more noble and proper tragedy, amusing sideshows to distract attention from the monotony of the main dish. And then, of course, there were the irreversibly fixed tropes and rules that had to be obeyed- characters were invariably all noble and kingly (in fact it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the idea of a classical tragedy of the common man was entertained at all) and spoke with rigid rhythm, making the whole experience more poetic than imitative of real life. The iambic pentameter was king, the new was non-existent, and there was no concept whatsoever that any of this could change.

Now contrast this with, say, Macbeth. This is (obviously) a tragedy, about a lord who, rather than failing to recognise a tragic flaw in his personality until right at the very end and then holding out for a protracted death scene in which to explain all of it (as in a Greek tragedy), starts off a good and noble man who is sent mental by a trio of witches. Before Shakespeare’s time a playwright could be lynched before he made such insulting suggestions about the noble classes (and it is worth noting that Macbeth wasn’t written until he was firmly established as a playwright), but Shakespeare was one of the first of a more common-born group of playwrights, raised an actor rather than aristocrat. The main characters may be lords & kings it is true (even Shakespeare couldn’t shake off the old tropes entirely, and it would take a long time for that to change), but the driving forces of the plot are all women, three of whom are old hags who speak in an irregular chanting and make up heathen prophecies. Then there is an entire monologue dedicated to an old drunk bloke, speaking just as irregularly, mumbling on about how booze kills a boner, and even the main characters get in on the act, with Macbeth and his lady scrambling structureless phrases as they fairly shit themselves in fear of discovery. Hell, he even managed to slip in an almost comic moment of parody as Macbeth compares his own life to that of a play (which, of course, it is. He pulls a similar trick in As You Like It)

This is just one example- there are countless more. Romeo and Juliet was one of the first examples of romance used as the central driving force of a tragedy, The Tempest was the Elizabethan version of fantasy literature and Henry V deserves a mention for coming up with some of the best inspirational quotes of all time. Unsurprisingly, whilst Shakespeare was able to spark a revolution at home, other countries were rocked by his radicalism- the French especially were sharply divided into two camps, one supporting this theatrical revolution (such as Voltaire) and the other vehemently opposing it. It didn’t do any good- the wheels had been set in motion, and for the next 500 years theatre and literature continued (and continues) to evolve at a previously unprecedented rate. Nowadays, the work of Shakespeare seems to us as much of a relic as the old Greek tragedies must have appeared to him, but as theatre has moved on so too has our expectations of it (such as, for instance, jokes that are actually funny and speech we can understand without a scholar on hand). Shakespeare may not have told the best stories or written the best plays to our ears, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best playwright.