The History Boys (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Not the lesson we all wanted
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The Independent Culture

Some plays stroll into the cinema as if they've just come home - like Everybody Comes to Rick's, which did just fine once it had changed its name to Casablanca. Others can never quite shake off the dust of the stage, though that doesn't necessarily matter: neither Olivier's Henry V and Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made much effort to adapt to the new medium, and who would want them any different? The History Boys - adapted by Alan Bennett from his own play, featuring the original National Theatre cast, and directed by the original director, Nicholas Hytner - falls into the latter class; and in this case it does matter.

After its triumphs in London and on Broadway, where it more or less swept the board at the Tonys, the film arrives on a wave of expectation; and it doesn't live up to it. Solid, beautifully acted, full of quotable lines, The History Boys: the Movie nevertheless feels like a stranger in the cinema. The difficulty is largely about the different degrees of reality, and realism, theatre and film demand. A stylised, theatrical version of the play might have worked. But Hytner has opened it out, setting it in real locations; and while none of his decisions is in itself eccentric, together they put Bennett's aphoristic dialogue in a context where it can't survive.

In his preface to the script of the play, Bennett says that he was deliberately vague about the period, but set it in the 1980s out of necessity: the film is about smart boys who, having done well in their A-levels, are sitting their Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams, a time when they are confronted by the dispiriting possibility that education - as a preparation for life and a pursuit of truth - doesn't matter as much as knowing how to look clever. The 1980s was the last time the exams happened in this form. Some reviewers of the play grumbled at what they saw as anachronism (in particular, the boys in this class, at a Yorkshire grammar school, seem to have an uncanny knowledge of the popular music and films of the late 1940 and early 1950s, the period when Bennett himself was just such a smart boy); but most accepted this as a minor blemish.

On screen, though, the anachronisms seem more glaring; and once that prop, of fidelity to period, is knocked away, the whole edifice comes tumbling down. The action is now set, so a subtitle informs us, in Sheffield in 1983. The boys are still unrealistically old-fashioned in their tastes, though much of the banter about old films has gone; but anachronism runs in the other direction, too: the boys use words like "wuss" - surely unknown in this country much before the millennium. And, bizarrely, although we are in south Yorkshire at Thatcherism's high-water mark, nobody even mentions politics.

Reviewers need to be careful about thrusting their own personality into their reviews, but they should declare their interests. My interest here is that I was in just such a class of clever boys doing Oxbridge entrance in 1982, doing history. On top of that, nearly all the exteriors for the film were shot at another of my old schools. So I've never seen a film that, in superficial ways, more closely resembled part of my own life: it felt like watching somebody else's fictionalised version of my own memoirs.

This weirdness may well have made me more sensitive to the film's implausibilities than I should be. For example, one of the things I remember most clearly about that term is the lousy weather - dank and frequently misty, the nights drawing in as the exams approached.

The film lets slip that the action is taking place in the run-up to Christmas, but it was obviously shot in high summer, with blue skies and leaves on the trees. Still, the implausibility goes deeper than that. A major problem is Hector, the eccentric ageing teacher played by Richard Griffiths, who represents education for its own sake: he makes the boys learn poetry by heart and gets them to improvise plays in French. The boys adore Hector, to the point of allowing him to feel them up during rides on his motor-cycle. Griffiths is a fine actor, but Hector is too much larger than life to work on screen: it's hard to believe that the boys would tolerate his clowning.

The good news is that other performances have survived the transition to film much better, particularly Stephen Campbell Moore as the clever, closeted teacher Irwin - gentle, self-contained, in a way that couldn't be done on stage; and though some of the boys are starting to look a little long in the tooth for their parts, all are good value. It is, in sum, a useful record of a great night out at the theatre; but not a great film.

Anthony Quinn is away

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