November 9, 2006
Working-class lads vie for Oxford in ‘History Boys’
"I'm a Jew," he says. "I'm small. I'm homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I'm f....d." The lines hint at the tone of the movie, which happily features the original cast of the play that smashed all kinds of award and box-office records in London, on Broadway, and even in Hong Kong and New Zealand.
The masterful drama and film script by Alan Bennett ("The Madness of King George") is funny with an undertone of deep sadness, subtle and coarse, dense and sparkling, and offers so pyrotechnical a display of ideas and literary references that it may take two or three viewings to take it in. Most books and plays about British schoolboys are set in "public" (meaning private) upper-class institutions, such as Eton or Harrow. But in this film we encounter a group of middle- and working-class lads studying at a state-supported "grammar school" in a drab industrial town of the 1980s in the north of England.
However, the school's ambitious headmaster is driven to ready his boys for the examination that will admit them to Oxford on scholarships. Two teachers vie to prepare the eight bright lads for the assault on the pinnacle of British education, and their clashing personalities, philosophies and pedagogical approaches are at the heart of the story.
One is the rotund, grey-haired Hector, who teases, bullies and inspires the students with his own passionate love of literature and art and his fondness for old Hollywood movies and patriotic World War II songs.
While culture and learning for learning's sake are all very well, to impress the Oxford admission board requires a more focused and pragmatic teacher, figures the headmaster.
His choice is Irwin -- all characters are known by their last names -- a young man who knows all about test scores and how to impress Oxford dons. History, Irwin says, "is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance," best played out by taking a generally accepted proposition, inverting it, and finding the necessary proof for the inversion.
For instance, the way to impress the examiners with your original thinking on, say, the Holocaust, is to put it "in proportion" by comparing it to previous historical slaughters.
Others have their own definitions of history. To the sole female instructor, history is "women following behind men with a bucket." To Rudge, the most athletic boy who'll get into Oxford on a rugby scholarship, "History is one f.....g thing after another."
Yet, "History Boys" is very far from the happy-school-days-on-green-playing-fields kind of remembrance.
Hector, the devoted teacher, gropes his boys while giving them rides on his motorcycle, but he is more to be pitied than scorned, according to Richard Griffiths, who portrays the role as the play's central figure.
"Hector is a man whom love has passed by, who is trying to reach out to someone," Griffiths said during a number of face-to-face interviews with director Nicholas Hytner and three of the cast members.
Griffiths' performance is brilliant, but, to this biased observer, the character hitting closest to home is that of Posner. In the end, he proves to be the only one of Hector's boys "who took everything to heart, remembers everything he has ever taught ... the songs, the poems, the sayings, the endings; the words of Hector never forgotten," the female instructor says.
For two-and-a-half years, on the world's stages and now on screen, the 17-year-old Posner has been played by Samuel Barnett, who is about six years older than his character and a veteran of Britain's National Theatre.
Anticipating my first question, Barnett opened our interview with: "My father is Jewish, and his parents came from Poland. He married my mum, a Quaker, while both were in college, which made him the black sheep of his family."
Barnett has a lilting voice and some of the film's most pleasant moments have him singing such Hector favorites as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "Bye Bye Blackbird."
"I've played Posner 483 times, and the acting doesn't scare me, but the singing terrifies me at each performance," he said.
Barnett's part-Jewish background never came up during auditions and had nothing to do with his getting the role, he believes.
"I've never experienced anti-Semitism, but when we moved from London to a small town on the northeast coast, my dad was quite worried, even paranoid, about it," Barnett recalled.
The Holocaust was not discussed in the parental home, and the first time Barnett learned about it was as a 14-year-old student in a class about World War II.
His real education, though, came through Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List."
"I watched it six times," Barnett said. "It absolutely floored me. I was devastated."
"The History Boys" opens at the Lammle Theatres' Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica on Nov. 21, at the Town Center 5 in Encino on Dec. 1, and at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena on Dec. 8.