Now we can forget Dead Poets Society ever existed. This movie is also about adolescence and poetry and teachers, but it's blessedly, honestly ambivalent. The History Boys should be shown in high schools across the country. It won't, of course. Too many swear words; the best teacher (loved and defended by the boys) is a groper; and its only clear moral message is: If young gays don't venture out of the closet soon, they'll become emotionally deformed adults.
The History Boys is all about men. The eight titular boys are lower-middle-class students at a school in northern England preparing for the Oxford and Cambridge exams with their teachers, Hector (the balloon-shaped, ruddy-faced, and unerringly brilliant Richard Griffiths) and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore). Hector is an old teacher who puts his faith in truth and beauty. Irwin is a young hotshot brought in to teach the boys rhetoric and academic panache. If Hector is a lumbering Grecian, Irwin is a flashy, hollow postmodernist. That pedagogical tension—and the fact that they're both closet cases—drives the story of the boys' exploration of the mind and the body.
There is one woman in the film, the deadpan teacher Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), who has her moment at the center: "History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket." But mostly the movie is about the boys ("How do I define history? It's just one fucking thing after another") and the men. We are, of course, partisans for the poetic and romantic Hector—as are his pupils (even though he furtively gropes them from time to time and retreats as soon as he's told)—because he's a great teacher, and his classroom exchanges with the boys are one of the movie's thousand tiny pleasures:
"Sir. I don't always understand poetry."
"You don't understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now, and you'll understand it whenever."
"I don't see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet."
"But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you're dying. We're making your deathbeds here, boys. Poetry is the trailer! Forthcoming attractions!"
And the boys are routinely smarter than their superiors. In one scene, a gym teacher shouts at a boy who brings in a sick note: "I don't do sick notes! Get your clothes off! Did Jesus Christ say, 'Please may I be excused from the crucifixion?'" A boy offers: "Uh, I think he actually did, Sir." (The correction is all the more delicious because the gym teacher is an evangelical who does more Bible thumping than Bible reading.)
Among the adult characters, sexuality is a fount of shame. The closet cases are anxious and self-deluding; the sanctimonious straights, exemplified by the wretched headmaster, are priggish and asinine. But the boys treat their own sexuality (straight, gay, curious) and their teachers' sexuality (predatory, frustrated, dead) with a charming matter-of-factness. Scripps is religiously celibate; Posner is publicly in love with Dakin, the (straight) class lothario; and Dakin is, in Mrs. Lintott's words, "cunt-struck." It's all out in the open, the very definition of naive—except for Dakin, who is too worldly wise. He spins an elaborate military metaphor about his flings: "Just as moving up to the frontline, troops presumably had to pass the sites of previous battles where every inch of territory has been hotly contested, so it is with me... like particularly her tits, which only fell after a prolonged campaign some three weeks ago and to which I now have immediate access." (God! The writing! It's such a pleasure, so much better than most movies.) And, toward the end, he toys with his teachers' homo yearnings in a way that slithers between exploration and manipulation. He, better than any of the movie's characters, understands that sex is power. More so than even Hector, whose groping seems more pathetic than threatening.
The History Boys was originally a play written by Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hynter and is now a movie still written by Bennett and still directed by Hynter with almost all the original cast, all of whom are excellent. Which means that the best movie of the year is actually a play.