Tuesday, September 22, 2009
This film was another one of those instances of not remembering how it ended up in the Netflix queue but thankful it did.
"The History Boys" is initially a loving, gentle, pre-college educational romp. But as things progress, the truth is revealed in an easy-going, British style. In an all-boys prep school, the various characters have all nearly aced their preliminary college exams. But their headmaster wants more, and brings in a young consultant to bring more polish to the students, in the hopes of not just getting into Oxford or Cambridge, but getting in with scholarships.
A gifted ensemble cast delivers great performances. Esteemed English actor, Richard Griffiths (you know him from "Harry Potter"), as "Hector," is the teddy bear of a professor whose under-appreciated teaching style eventually gives way to a more serious charge, when he is seen fondling one of his male students while they ride his motorcycle. The students are all old enough to know what's going on with old Hector, and even have a standard retort to give when they feel his reaching hand. Nothing is done beyond this. There is a certain amount of acceptance and calm here that keeps things from developing beyond a simple, acknowledged fondle. Hector himself seems to truly care for the boys and encourages their success. We get the impression that he is controlling his urges so that he would never go beyond a roving hand. But when a crossing guard takes notice of this, the headmaster of the school steps in and "requests" that Hector retire immediately. Hector is so loveable, it's hard to come to terms with the realization that he truly is a pedophile. But, as in life, there are many shades of grey.
The struggles and coercion and maneuvering that the boys all partake in is what gets at the heart of the story. Learning the less-than-admirable manipulations that adults engage in is as much a part of their education as essays worthy of acceptance into Oxford.
Like "Doubt," "The History Boys" was also a play before it became a film. And both films tackle sexual child abuse in different ways. In Doubt, there is the ruination and damnation of an esteemed clergyman, and the tragedy of his young victim. In The History Boys, there is the more subtle realism of a gentle yet lecherous old man. Here, not only are the students older, but they are wiser, and know that these subtle advances are a part of the adult world, as it is about to unfold before them.