A seemingly controversial study in queer desire earns high marks
Despite being groped by their teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths), when he gives them a lift on his motorcycle, “The History Boys” will go on to become History Men and, eventually, History.
The boys tolerate Hector’s behavior, “more by way of benediction than gratification.” And when they accept a ride, the boys know what to expect. It may be reprehensible, but it’s a tradition at this Yorkshire school. And in England, tradition is important.
Gay director Nicholas Hytner is working from a screenplay by a gay playwright, Alan Bennett, which is based on his play. You might expect “The History Boys” to have a more upbeat attitude toward homosexuality. But its attitudes in that area are evenly balanced between the positive and negative, with a lot of neutral thrown in.
Although “The History Boys” was successful on stage, the same result shouldn’t be expected for the film version. It throws up countless barriers to an audience used to traditional screen fare. Homosexuality is one of them (homophobes have a spokesperson in the headmaster, played by Clive Merrison, but he’s hardly the hero). But there’s also the Britishness: Just when you’re starting to get used to the accents they throw in a scene in untranslated French.
That’s a lot to overlook, and of course intellectual gay Anglophiles with some knowledge of French won’t have to, but if you can get past it there’s a simpler human story at the heart of “The History Boys” like a “Dead Poets Society” that acknowledges 17-year-olds can be sexual beings.
Eight overachievers spend an extra term preparing to apply to top universities. Among the eight, the only one who’s apparently sexually active is Dakin (Dominic Cooper), who’s handsome and knows how to work it. He’s currently working it on Fiona (Georgia Taylor), the headmaster’s secretary, to the dismay of obviously gay Posner (Samuel Barnett), who has a mad crush on him.
“I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual, and I live in Sheffield,” Posner says, concluding, “I’m fucked.”
Actually he’s not fucked yet.
“General studies” teacher Hector fills the boys with culture from poetry to camp. They sing showtunes and act out scenes from old movies in his class.
And Dorothy Lintott (Frances de la Tour) drills them in history, which one boy describes as “one fucking thing after another.” The headmaster brings in a temporary contract teacher, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to teach them creative approaches to applying to college, such as taking a contrary approach that will make their essays stand out: “Find something, anything, to say in [Stalin's] defense.”
The class includes a token black, Crowther (Samuel Anderson); a Muslim, Akthar (Sacha Dhawan); a fat boy, Timms (James Corden); and a jock, Rudge (Russell Tovey).
Virtually nothing happens in the first half of the movie, so there’s plenty of time to get to know them. The headmaster eventually learns of Hector’s inappropriate behavior and tries to sack him. Dakin develops a bit of a man-crush on Irwin, about whose private life nothing is known, and considers tossing him a bone you can guess which one. Dorothy turns out to be a raging feminist: “History teaches five centuries of masculine ineptitude,” she says.
The boys have their college exams and interviews there’s something of a “Chorus Line” feel to this aspect of the film. And an epilogue takes you further into their lives than you expected to go.
Hector is a sad but not tragic figure, who apparently never goes beyond fraternal fondling with the boys and has a “somewhat unexpected wife.” When the headmaster asks if she knows about him and his boys, Hector answers, “I’m not sure she’d be interested.”
The story is arbitrarily set in 1983. And a teacher like Hector would still be shocking in America today although most of us have known Hectors who didn’t dare lay a hand on their students.
Bennett has long been a wonderful wordsmith, and “The History Boys” is no exception. Hector is said to be a fan of the subjunctive, “the mood of possibility.” And what better metaphor for the teenage years, when not quite fully formed human beings explore their potential?
The teacher makes a lovely speech about literature that also explains why we love queer cinema: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Think about that when Posner sings “Bewitched” (reprised by Rupert Wainwright behind the credits), staring longingly at Dakin. And remember some people you’ve sung to, more likely in your head than out loud.
It was probably better on stage. But “The History Boys” is definitely worth experiencing in some medium especially if you’re an intellectual gay Anglophile with some knowledge of French.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 15, 2006