I finally got to watch the film which some of my friends are raving mad about, the way other people do when they see a Sam Milby movie.
I don't blame them for raving. There are many things to delight about The History Boys (the official website is here, and the Amazon page here), the brilliant film by Nicholas Hytner adapted from the brilliant play by Alan Bennett. There is, first of all, the almost typical British intellectual sheen in this story of schoolboys preparing for Oxford that manages to engage us emotionally, without the sentimental trifle of Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society, which -- even if it had been my favorite film for the longest time, in high school and college -- seems to grow more dated by the coming of years. (Consider also Mike Nichols' adaptation of Margaret Edson's Wit, where Emma Thompson gives a terrifyingly magnificent performance as a cancer-stricken professor and her passion over the 17th century English poet John Donne. How do the British do it?)
Then there are the undercurrents of a love story, an unrequited one that will melt the martyr in all of us.
Then there are the hints of a scandal -- but which is so cleverly drawn that it does not stoop low to the tabloid variety.
Then there is the magnificent instances of the boys singing ("Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" never sounded this haunting in its longing, and "Bye, Bye Blackbird" -- traditionally a country tune -- becomes, in this film, a heart-rending paean to the memory of a beloved, underappreciated mentor). Ned, in his blog, has posted a clip from YouTube that has Posner singing a love song to Dakin, and I'm reposting it:
Then there is the intelligent perspective of how teaching is, or must be. The Baltimore Sun's Michael Srago, reviewing the play when it arrived in New York, takes note of this: "For Hector, 'knowledge is not general. It is specific -- and -- it has nothing to do with getting on.' Interlopers may be startled when Hector's French lesson takes the shape of a comic improv about bordellos, or when the tearjerking climax of Brief Encounter gets interspersed with fragments of great poetry. But Hector doesn't 'want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words.' He wants them to savor writing as a living thing. That's why he integrates 'tosh'-like music-hall songs into his freewheeling curriculum: the 'sheer calculated silliness' of pop culture deflates reverence."
Then there are the history lessons -- and the erotic charge that comes in academic shoptalk: in this film, the moviegoer becomes a vicarious student or enraptured spectator of scintillating debates, of the relentless volley between argument and counter-argument. The professor nicknamed by the boys as Hector (played with such subtle intensity by Richard Griffiths, who is the snarky uncle in the Harry Potter movies) has it right when he proclaimed the "transer of knowledge" as basically an erotic act. I've always felt that way when I am in a class with a great professor, and surrounded with classmates who are willing to tussle, endlessly and with passion, with a cornucopeia of ideas. (Suddenly, I miss those graduate school days in Silliman when I had Ceres, Nino, and Timothy for teachers, and Jean Claire, Bombee, Douglas, and Jesselle for classmates...)
For me, the best moment in the film (and there are several very good ones) comes when Hector and Posner (played by Samuel Barnett, who has become the intelligent gay man's idea of a dreamboat -- right, Ned?) discuss a poem by Thomas Hardy ("Drummer Hodge"), in a scene that by itself is already worth the price of the admission.
Hector pauses near the end of their discussion, and says: "The best moments in readings are when you come across something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- that you'd thought special, particular to you, and here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."
I felt that way seeing this movie. The History Boys is more than just a hand; it is an embrace willing to take me in.