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20th Century Fox presents
The History Boys (2006)

"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. And 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."
- Hector (Richard Griffiths)

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: April 02, 2007

Stars: Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour
Other Stars: Samuel Anderson, James Corden, Andrew Knott, Russell Tovey, Jamie Parker, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Clive Merrison, Georgia Taylor
Director: Nicholas Hytner

Manufacturer: Deluxe Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content
Run Time: 01h:51m:58s
Release Date: April 17, 2007
UPC: 024543425199
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B A-BC- B

DVD Review

Some stage plays enjoy a smooth transition to celluloid, while others face a rockier road. Unfortunately, The History Boys, Nicholas Hytner's valiant attempt to recapture the magic of the Broadway sensation that won him a 2006 Tony Award as Best Director, falls into the latter category. Though there's much to like about Alan Bennett's adaptation of his own play, the film version struggles to fill the screen's more expansive canvas, and still maintain the intimacy and energy of the theatrical original. Hytner, however, deserves an A for effort, and should be commended for keeping the largely unknown (and uniformly excellent) cast intact, and not diluting the show's vital, life-affirming spirit.

Set in Britain in 1983, the story follows a gaggle of working-class, high school history whizzes as they're intensely tutored by two different but equally inspiring teachers for interviews at Oxford and Cambridge. Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths) represents the old-school, romantic approach to education; he teaches life lessons along with the prescribed curriculum, and employs unorthodox methods to spark and sustain his students' interest. Such style, however, is anathema to the newly arrived, arrogant, and much younger Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who takes a more modern tack. Like many of today's results-oriented educators, Irwin teaches the test, and his primary concern is ensuring these intellectual hotshots pass their entrance exams. To meet that end, he challenges them to flip accepted historical theories on their ear and develop unique concepts (such as, "Stalin was a sweetie"), so they can divorce themselves from standard collegiate applicants. Though the boys remain loyal to the roly-poly Hector (so much so that they endure his casual groping when he carts them home on his motorbike), they soon respond to Irwin's edgier methodology, even as it exasperates them. They also respond to the stimuli of daily life, and as the young men study, analyze, and discuss various historical issues, they also must confront their burgeoning sexuality, social and scholarly limitations, and the hypocrisy of the world at large.

Like Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Dead Poets Society, A Separate Peace, and countless other films that focus on fraternal ties and school politics, The History Boys extols the educational process (even as it questions its worth) and the stimulating exchange of ideas that help boys evolve into men. The eloquently crafted but stagy dialogue includes heated debates on the Reformation, World War I, and the Holocaust, and it's fascinating to watch the teachers cleverly back-door their way into the teens' minds, planting seeds and lighting fires. In the process, the students absorb much more than the facts of battles, dates of treaties, and college admission strategies; they learn about the darkness and complexity of the adult mind, and how difficult it is to escape and conquer the insecurities, fears, and neuroses of adolescence.

Sex, of course, preoccupies them (and plays a major role in the film), but their attitude toward it—especially homosexuality—is too brash and accepting for the early-1980s time period. Though it's refreshing to see young men so at ease with same-sex desires and impulses, such openness doesn't always ring true. Neither does their cavalier response to Hector's ineffectual, yet still highly inappropriate, groping. Granted, their affection for their teacher might prevent them from reporting the incidents, but their continued tolerance of the aberrant behavior—"harmless" though it may be—seems more than a bit odd, and especially tough to swallow in our current vigilant age.

The performances, however, go down nice and easy. The boys form such a tight ensemble, we almost forget they're too old for their roles, while Griffiths (Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter films) brings a Chips-ian grace to Hector, engendering both sympathy and admiration, despite his distasteful proclivities. It takes us longer to warm up to Irwin, who teaches truth but refuses to face it in his own life, but Moore's subtle portrayal ultimately wins us over. Still, the film's finest work comes from Frances de la Tour (another Harry Potter alum), who lends the proceedings a welcome female perspective. Reminiscent of Edna May Oliver, her Mrs. Lintott (a teacher who emphasizes "facts, facts, facts" over interpretation) brings both clarity and sanity to a sea of raging testosterone, and her blunt, dry, and impeccably delivered observations punch up the film immeasurably.

Quotable lines, several marvelous nuggets of wisdom, and an irrepressibly irreverent spirit keep The History Boys involving, but the choice individual parts never quite add up to a satisfying whole. Thanks to a handful of Tonys, the play has earned a respected place in theatrical history, but in the annals of cinema, it's doubtful the film will ever be more than a footnote.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Though The History Boys is a very recent film, the visual rendering on my Fox screener disc was disappointingly soft. Details—especially in long shots—were difficult to discern, and a maddening grainy quality predominated. The image cleared up a bit as the picture progressed, but the transfer lacked the crisp accents and vibrant color of most new releases. Such a life-affirming movie deserves better than the drab treatment Fox has given it.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: I have no beef with Fox over their screener disc policy, as long as they send out quality product. Yet more often than not, the transfers are abysmally subpar. The audio on the History Boys screener was just a hair above atrocious, thanks to countless instances of dropout and long stretches when the sound was completely out of sync. How can a reviewer accurately evaluate a DVD when the studio doesn't care enough to send out a decent disc? The DD 5.1 track comes alive only when the '80s music covers various montage sequences; otherwise, the audio is flat and uninteresting, and the thick accents occasionally make the dialogue unintelligible.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 50m:37s

Extras Review: A lively audio commentary by director Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett kicks off the supplements, and both men offer keen insights into the characters, story, and controversial events contained within. Hytner describes working with the actors and explains a few of his directorial decisions, often marveling at how the camera's perspective alters the focus and timbre of particular sequences from how they were originally perceived on stage. He's also quick to call attention to scenes that displease him, and rues a few of his choices. Bennett chimes in less frequently—often connecting the events and characters on screen with his own personal experiences, and discussing the educational philosophies of the school's various staff members—but the two enjoy a comfortable and respectful rapport, and even reveal how and why they changed the final fate of one of the students in the film version.

History Boys Around the World: Tour Diaries is a hip, MTV-like featurette ("directed" by actors Dominic Cooper, James Corden, and Stephen Campbell Moore) chronicling the play's eight-month tour to Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, and New York. Extreme close-ups, rough footage, quick edits, and plenty of on-camera clowning distinguish this 14-minute video diary, which culminates with the film's world premiere in London and a meeting with Britain's Prince Charles.

More substantive, Pass It On: The History Boys on Screen addresses the play's transition to the motion picture medium through on-set footage and interviews with the cast, director, writer, and producer. The 13-minute piece looks at, among other things, the intense camaraderie the boys shared and how their closeness influenced the screenplay's construction; how the story inspired many of the boys to study the history they discuss in the film; and the differences between stage and screen acting.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

You don't need to love history to appreciate The History Boys, but this adaptation of the acclaimed play just misses the mark cinematically. Fine performances and well-crafted dialogue distinguish the film, but the story lacks the emotional impact one expects and craves. Weak transfers keep us further distanced from the action, but hopefully Fox has fixed all the (very) annoying glitches by now. Definitely worthy of a rental.

 


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