Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"The History Boys," dir. Nicholas Hytner (Oklahoma Gazette)

Caveat, cinephile: While you will find much to admire in Nicholas Hytner’s film version of Alan Bennett’s many-award-winning 2004 play, “The History Boys,” you might well, as do I, also find that with which to take exception.

First, that to admire. One of England’s most popular playwrights, Bennett is a writer of wit and emotional insight. The themes in this story of a diverse group of boys at a Yorkshire grammar school working for admission to Cambridge or Oxford are unimpeachable in their wisdom.

In teachers Hector (Richard Griffiths) and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), Bennett sets up two opposing approaches to education and comes down heavily on the side of learning for learning’s sake. He scorns the idea of education as a mere means to the end of career success or financial security.

Middle-aged Hector, a portly, impassioned spouter of poetry and lover of lines from melodramatic films, sees learning in the arts and humanities as a never-ending process of life enrichment and character development.

Younger, thinner, hipper Irwin sees education as a tool to achieve goals, the most immediate of which here is acceptance at either Cambridge or Oxford. Irwin teaches strategy, how to spin what one knows and manipulate responses in entrance interviews and on exams to make of oneself a product one of the two prestigious schools will want. What one knows doesn’t matter as much as how one can use it to advance in life.

Hytner also directed the original play, and his filmed version of it is funny and touching and clever almost without pause. Most of the film’s cast comes from that stage production. Griffiths won an Olivier, the British equivalent of a Tony, for his performance. Although their characters are all clearly types — the thick-headed athletic one, the selfish handsome one, the sensitive gay artistic one, etc. — the actors are appealing and, for the most part, believable.

Now, the exception. Set in the homoerotic context of the British all-male grammar school tradition, “The History Boys” explores the sexual tensions inherent in boyish crushes on teachers and the difficulties to which denial of one’s sexuality can lead. No problem.

However, Hector daily takes a different one of his beloved pupils for a ride on the back of his motorbike so he can fondle the boy’s genitals. Problem. A teacher touching a 17- or even 18-year-old student sexually, no matter how vital a life force that teacher represents, just isn’t acceptable. If Hector were a straight man and the student a female, all would be outraged.

Irwin, too, struggles mightily with the desire to have a sexual relationship with a pupil. Problem. In a stagy final scene looking forward to what the boys become as men, the openly gay student explains that now a grammar-school teacher himself, he daily fights the urge to touch his boys. PROBLEM. Suggesting gay men struggle with unceasing desire for young boys feeds a dangerous stereotype unfairly linking homosexuality with pedophilia.

Bennett has expressed in various places his conflicted feelings about his sexual orientation. They show here, and they do harm.


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