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Friday, December 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"The History Boys": The joy and heartbreak of learning, teaching

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The History Boys," with Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore, Samuel Barnett, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Jamie Parker. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, from a screenplay by Alan Bennett based on his play. 104 minutes. Rated R for language and sexual content. Harvard Exit.

Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning play "The History Boys" comes to the screen with its stage cast (Broadway, by way of London's National Theatre) mostly intact, and that's not necessarily a vote in its favor. Plays and movies are different creatures; transforming one to the other isn't just a matter of perfunctory "opening out" but requires a complete re-examination of the material. A cast too familiar with its rhythms, operating with the kind of snappy precision that can work effectively on stage, may flounder in the more naturalistic realm of the screen. (This happened to Neil LaBute's play "The Shape of Things," which came to the screen with seemingly every breath and beat intact, and little spontaneity remaining.)

And indeed, Nicholas Hytner's film (he also directed the stage play) never quite shakes free of its theatrical origins, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. The story of a group of British schoolboys struggling to gain acceptance into Oxford or Cambridge universities, it contrasts different teaching styles and celebrates the joy — and the pain — of learning.

The actors playing the eight students (many of whom, in close-up, look well past their teens) sometimes fall into a roteness, tossing out their lines in well-measured beats, arranging themselves into rather theatrical-looking tableaux. An exception is Samuel Barnett, who plays Posner, a melancholy boy who describes himself in voice-of-doom tones: "I'm a Jew, I'm small, I'm homosexual and I live in Sheffield." Posner has an unrequited crush on another boy, the handsome, confident Dakin (Dominic Cooper). When he sings a Rodgers and Hart love tune to Dakin in class, it's an almost magical moment, as the movie becomes quiet and Barnett lets the lyric speak and soar.

But the movie belongs to two actors playing teachers: Richard Griffiths as the nonconventional "general studies" professor Hector, who urges his students to immerse themselves in art and culture and to think for themselves; and Frances de la Tour as Dorothy, a history teacher whose mantra is "Facts, facts, facts!" (Stephen Campbell Moore, as a new young teacher, is less vivid.) De la Tour's delivery is deliciously wry; when told a new teacher came highly recommended, she notes in baritone, "So did Anne of Cleaves." Griffiths, as the garrulous heart of the film, performs with vigor, his voice booming out in his scenes with the boys. When he's broken, late in the film, his despair is just as large; his tears seem to shake the foundations of the classroom.

Hytner uses hand-held cameras effectively to give the movie a loose, casual feel, which helps distract from the occasionally stage-bound dialogue. And it's a rare pleasure to see a film that assumes literacy on the part of its audience. (Much of an entire scene is played in French — without subtitles.) You can tell that "The History Boys" must have been a joy to watch in a live performance; and the movie captures just enough of that joy.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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