Histories, Fresh and Final

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DECEMBER 18, 2006

Histories, Fresh and Final

the history boys

(Fox Searchlight)

The duke of Wellington said that the battle of Waterloo was won onthe playing fields of Eton. But that is not all that happened atEton, or at many other English public schools (the equivalent ofAmerican private schools). From time to time the English school,its teachers, and its students have been the subjects of plays and(latterly) films that explored more than its benefits. By now theschool film has become a quasi-charade that implies both whyWaterloo was won and why some subsequent battles, literal andotherwise, would not have pleased the duke.

American films on the same or similar subjects don't have theEnglish implications. Dead Poets Society was an occasion, not asymptom. English schools, on film at least, are taken as symptomsand predictions in a national way, pro or con. Terence Rattigan'sThe Browning Version, David Sherwin's If...- -even James Hilton'sgood old Goodbye, Mr. Chips in its two versions--were being Englishabout the English for the world to see.

Now Alan Bennett's The History Boys joins the line. Bennett'sscreenplay is adapted from his play by the same title, which wassuccessful in London and New York, and now it is filmed with itstheater cast. In charge was the original director, Nicholas Hytner,who has had much film experience. (The Madness of King Georgefunctioned juicily as film; The Crucible did not.) Here Hytnerspills occasionally into an overheated idea of intimacy, sometimesseeming to shove us up people's nostrils. But mostly he moves andcomposes with clear memory of the many good films that he hasseen.

In 1983, eight boys in their late teens, graduating from a middlingYorkshire school, have been selected to apply to Oxford andCambridge and must take an entrance exam, which thrills theheadmaster to bits and affects the eight students in more or lessthe same way. One, a working-class Welsh boy, is not a seriousstudent and doesn't give much of a hoot about going to university(which makes us wonder how he got into the group). All the rest arekeen on Oxbridge. In a typical modern melange, the group contains aJew and a Muslim, yet all except the Welshman speak with the airybriskness of their elders.

Early in the film, the tone implies that Bennett's purpose isspecifically anti-Wellington. He seems to be showing that the"pukka sahib," stiff-upper-lip national English character, aspredicted in an English schoolboy, is now not only dented butderided. That character never becomes glorified, as in some pastschool films, but most of the decisions, plus the quality ofdiscourse-- the very way that teachers treat students as equals inverbal ping-pong--imply there is still considerable style to bepreserved merely in being English.

The story as such doesn't amount to much: the students and staff alljust prepare, more or less assiduously, for the entrance exam. Thebody of the film is its small incidents and its curvy dialogue.That dialogue is stuffed, by staff and students, with quotations ofpoetry and prose--"gobbets," they are called. Non-classic cultureis plentifully present, too. Two of the boys, in one madcap frenzy,play the last scene of Brief Encounter. After a death, a groupsings softly, sweetly, "Bye Bye Blackbird."

Chief among the film's incidents are two homosexualitems--potentially homosexual, anyway. The subject has long hoveredaround English schools, and here it is open. One of thehomosexually involved teachers is played by Richard Griffiths, whohas the most grotesquely obese figure I can remember in an actor.When he is asked if he has told his wife about his same-sexleanings, he says that she wouldn't be much interested.

The role is a piece of cake for Griffiths, as it would be for anycompetent actor, even a thin one. At the other extreme is CliveMerrison, who plays the headmaster like stale cake, iced withmugging. (The fault is as much Hytner's as Merrison's.) All theothers are at home in the way that even young English actors, alongwith veterans, can seem to be on their native articulate heath.Dominic Cooper shines as the best-looking of the boys, who makes themost trouble. The Jewish boy is played by Samuel Barnett withunashamed delicacy. Steven Campbell Moore as the newest teacherhandles a lot of suppressed thoughts adroitly; and it is lovelyindeed to see a veteran teacher played by Frances de la Tour, whowas a perfect Helena in Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream in1971.

At the last, despite the modern touches in Bennett's screenplay, TheHistory Boys fills the traditional bill. Wellington would probablynot be too upset by it. Eventually it tells us that Waterloo isstill in pretty good hands.

If the word "pleased" can be used about an obituary, I was pleased afew weeks ago to see the brief note about Philippe Noiret's deathon the front page of The New York Times. (The full story wasinside.) How many foreign actors who never were stars or notablepublic figures have ever been so treated in an American newspaper?How many readers would even recognize Noiret's name? I could onlydeduce that the newspaper staff includes some whose appreciation ofacting exceeds their newspaper sense.

Noiret, who died on November 23 at age seventy-six, was a man ofcontradictorily burning but restrained gifts. In his more than 150films, including those for television, he played a breathtakinglywide range of roles-- a regency duke in Let Joy Reign Supreme, an1890s reactionary in The Judge and the Assassin, a saddened WorldWar I army officer in Life and Nothing But. He was as unhandsome asan actor can be without making much of it. The American actor wholooked a bit like him was Walter Matthau, but Matthau, taking as hewas, had nothing like Noiret's scope and depth. It is something morethan reverse provincialism to note wryly that when Noiretdied--this man who was nothing more or less than a fine actor--thepresident of France issued a public statement mourning the loss.Comparisons with the White House would be wasteful.

Noiret's death is one more reminder of a curious power offilm--imaginary intimacy. When the comparable Japanese actorTakashi Shimura died, some years ago, I felt, among otherresponses, that I had lost a friend. So with Noiret. The instant Iread the notice I felt a foolishly personal pang. But of course theactor took over. I remembered his face at a particular moment. InBertrand Tavernier's The Clockmaker, Noiret plays a tradesman wholives a quiet life with his grown son. One morning a policeinspector quietly and carefully tells him that the police arelooking for his son because the youth has killed a man. Noiret'sface, after he hears this news, will always be with me.

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