Saturday, February 16, 2008
Education for school or education for life? (Film - The History Boys)
Alan Bennett's play and film The History Boys is the battle between the kind of education that prepares you for life and the kind that prepares you to do well on exams at school. That battle is played out in the lives of eight bright young men at a grammar school who have passed their A-levels and are preparing to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, and their educators. The real crux of the play is the struggle to build a life of satisfaction and self-respect. The boys are not of the privileged classes, but are otherwise as different as can be - Christian, Muslim, Jew and non-believer, black, Asian and White, gay and straight, fat and skinny.
The script is a gorgeous one. I stupidly never made it to see the play when it was on Broadway, but I had read it. Alan Bennett is known both as a writer and an actor. Some of his more familiar pieces are Talking Heads, The Madness of King George III, or Prick up Your Ears. He was one of the threesome that created Beyond the Fringe. His novella The Uncommon Reader was quite a hit this past year and his memoir Untold Stories is quite good as well. The script has a real easy sophistication. It preserves the feeling of a play even while being a film. Some of the scenes did not translate well to the screen, they had a canned, stagy sound to them - as though the actors couldn't get away from the patterns they had established in its long run. Others found a subtle intimacy, but I found the meaning of the story such an important one and the love among the company for each other and their script so evident that it really didn't matter when a scene didn't fully hit the mark.
It was directed as both a play and film by Nicholas Hytner who runs England's National Theater and has directed dozens and dozens of plays and musicals as well as a few films. Most of the boys were fresh faces at the time of the film's release, you might recognize a few of the grown-up-types, as few of the better known stage and film actors escaped without playing someone in Harry Potter. Richard Griffiths is beautiful in it, and a lot of the boys are really good but I'll save my special praise for Stephen Campbell Moore, I found his performance particularly real and moving. Full of longing and insecurity - beautiful work. If you don't know his work, rent this film or Bright Young Things in which he was equally good.
There was a whole tradition of closeted homosexual school teacher in British grammar schools, who liked being around other men and perhaps couldn't find a way to be socially acceptable in the world they were supposedly prepared for, so they stayed in school - their sexual longing sublimated into a love of a subject and their intimacy played out in intellectual exchanges between them and their students in the classroom rather than in bed. Given the fact that most of the world is coming out of the closet now, I hope it is a dying breed. No one should be forced to be unhappy because it is more comfortable for other people, and it is far from the only way to assure passionate pedagogy but it did make for some very memorable teachers. This film is an homage to them but it is more than that too. Seek it out if you haven't yet seen it.