- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Movies centered around a teacher with a heart of gold who inspires his hooligan students to success are a genre unto themselves.

From 1967’s “To Sir with Love” to the superficial 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle “Dangerous Minds” to the upcoming “Freedom Writers,” we never seem to tire of the idea that anybody can understand Shakespeare and Sophocles if just given the chance. It’s so familiar, in fact, that most of us could write the script ourselves.

So the accomplishment of “The History Boys” is that much more impressive. It’s one of the funniest films of the year — and one of the most thoughtful.

Nothing in this film is formulaic. The students don’t all carry their lessons with them for the rest of their lives. And their teachers are human, not superhuman.

“The History Boys” was a huge stage success, and the film reunites its creative team. The cast hasn’t changed, Alan Bennett adapted his own play, and Nicholas Hytner directs. (The pair filmed another Bennett play as 1994’s “The Madness of King George.”)

The movie opens in Yorkshire in 1983. The A-level results of eight friends are the best Cutler’s Grammar School has ever seen. The boys will return for a term to study for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams. Scholarships would be their ticket out of Northern England — and jobs as bouncers and milkmen.

These history boys, so named because of their best subject, aren’t the inner-city toughs we’re used to seeing in movies of this sort. They regularly quote Auden and Housman, after all. But as the frank headmaster (Clive Merrison) says, “They’re clever, but crass.”

So he hires Oxford graduate Irwin (“Bright Young Things’ ” Stephen Campbell Moore) to give them some polish, setting up a battle between pragmatic Irwin and romantic lit teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths). The one advises the boys to forget the truth — a contrarian view about why Stalin wasn’t so bad will turn dons’ heads. The other argues that its pursuit is the only thing that makes life worthwhile — whether or not it gets you into Oxford.

The stage cast owns Mr. Bennett’s sharp, witty script. They’re comfortable with their lines and each other. Mr. Hytner wisely opens up the play for the screen, expanding the action beyond the classroom to include field trips and even glimpses of the boys’ homes.

Two of the play’s Tony Award winners are joys to watch. Frances de la Tour (“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) is witty and assured as the droll history teacher. Mr. Griffiths (the boy wizard’s uncle) does something of a reprise of his role in the cult classic “Withnail and I” as an unfulfilled homosexual with a taste for the young. The boys find him harmless, and his unrequited longings help him connect with them. But that might not save his career.

The soundtrack alternates classic ‘80s alt rock from New Order, the Smiths, and the Cure with a few musical numbers, including a priceless rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” by another of the play’s Tony winners, Samuel Barnett as the most sensitive of the boys.

The history boys, after some prodding, do become men. “The History Boys” is, thankfully, a film for adults, who know that real life is nothing like a Michelle Pfeiffer movie.

***1/2

TITLE: “The History Boys”

RATING: R (language and sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Written by Alan Bennett based on his play.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight.

com/thehistoryboys

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS.

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