Watching The History Boys, one is highly aware that this script was originally written for the stage and not for the screen. It’s highly literate, incredibly verbose and altogether lacking in business. What I mean to say is that if you don’t fall asleep you might notice this.
The History Boys is a film adaptation of a play which originated in London and went on to win a truck load of Tonys on Broadway. It’s the story of a group of young prep school men who are working to get into “Cambridge or Oxford” under the tutelage of their far too tenured professors. Along the way they bond with each other and their teachers and spend a great deal of time talking around all the sex none of them are having.
There is an interesting idea beneath this heavy screenplay. There is an understanding of the humanness of those shunned by larger society. However there is such a distance put between the idea and the emotion behind it that it’s impossible to connect the two.
This story works on the conceit that there is a certain supremacy to the pursuit of academics, like those in the ivory towers are more complete human beings. Outside there is racism and bourgeois ideas of morality that these superior beings don’t have to accept. Inside they are all sexy and innovative and generally just better off than the pedestrian but “happy” suckers who attend more accessible educational institutions.
In the pursuit of this superiority, these people speak in heightened language where gerunds are desirable and ideas are their own ideology. There are a lot of ideas thrown around, like the true test of a scholar is to find something nice to say about Stalin, but none of this is ever explored. It’s all window dressing. No one is committed to anything. Neither is the audience.
In the end it’s hard to care about these folks. Their admission to the academic palaces of their dreams fails to be an emotional moment. Their, surprisingly sudden rescue of their beloved old mentor, seems an afterthought. I couldn’t imagine a tear welling up in my eye over this one.
The History Boys has funny moments and has moments that were potentially moving but none of it rings true. Maybe something this disposable might feel more meaningful on the stage but in the multiplex it has as much substance as these boys’ papers on how nice Stalin was.