On Broadway, where it won six Tony Awards and became a hit despite the absence of Nathan Lane or a Disney cartoon character in the cast, British playwright Alan Bennett's paean to the wonder and horror of sixth-form life carried a nearly mythic resonance. With its spare classroom set trailing off into negative space, the play's 1980s grammar-school environs felt like a place that transcended time—somewhere instantly familiar to anyone who's ever been young, questioned the purpose of a slide rule, and felt like the world was theirs for the taking.
Guided by the same creative principals—Bennett, director Nicholas Hytner, and the superb original cast—the film version of The History Boys is (perhaps inevitably) a lesser thing, more fixed in its moment and rendered almost unbearably "cinematic" in patches by Hytner's gymnastic camera work. Yet the ideas and emotions remain so rich that it almost doesn't matter. There is a beloved schoolmaster here called Hector (the ebulliently rumpled Richard Griffiths), whose continued employment is threatened both by the arrival of an upstart new faculty member (Stephen Campbell-Moore) and by a predilection for giving favored pupils too-close-for-comfort rides home on the back of his motorbike.
Anyone expecting a Dead Poets Society or Goodbye, Mr. Chips–style orgy of sentimentality, however, should best look elsewhere, for Bennett has far weightier matters on his mind. The "history" under discussion is that of education itself, as Hector's classroom becomes a crucible for the debate over knowledge for its own sake versus the popular art of "teaching to the test." It's not hard to figure out where Bennett's own sympathies lie, littered as the text is with quotations of Auden and A.E. Housman and one scene played out entirely in schoolboy French that Bennett, well, just expects you to get without subtitles. But if The History Boys arrives at a perilous moment for culture and learning, and if the news it brings isn't all good, it nevertheless instills in you hope for the youth of tomorrow. That, and a newfound appreciation for the lyrical value of compound adjectives. SCOTT FOUNDAS