The History Boys (15)

Please sir, I've had enough
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Fêted on both sides of the Atlantic, Alan Bennett's award-winning play The History Boys is now a film. Or rather, it's been filmed - the sort of churlish quibble that film people tend to make, and I admit it does Nicholas Hytner's achievement a disservice. Billed as "A National Theatre Production", that's exactly what this is: a screen version of Hytner's stage production, with the same extraordinary cast, with the text somewhat cut down and with a modicum of opening-out, but essentially a record of the play. Fair enough: if you didn't see the original, you can now catch it in its full glory at your local Odeon, and soon your own living room. But it still isn't really quite a film.

The main virtue of this version is that it captures for posterity some remarkable acting. It's rare to see an ensemble film that really is an ensemble film. The whole point of the play is that it's about a group, or rather two groups: a class of sixth-form boys studying history for their Oxbridge entrance exam, and the teachers preparing them for the hurdle. One of the most intriguing aspects of the drama is the way that its uniformed lads emerge as individuals from their black suits and white shirts, by force of character and distinctiveness of language: among them, bluff, knowing, religious Scripps (Jamie Parker), cocksure teenage stud Dakin (Dominic Cooper), and nervous, gay, culturally sensitive Posner (Samuel Barnett), apparently the Bennett proxy, who at the drop of a hat will launch into a poignant "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" or a scene from Brief Encounter.

The teachers are dominated by Richard Griffiths' volcanic tenderness as the melancholically exuberant Hector, whose General Studies classes are an eclectic cultural steam bath, ranging from the intimacy of great poetry to memorable moments from pre-1950s cinema. Stephen Campbell Moore is the intellectually unorthodox Irwin, whose deconstructive approach to knowledge suggests a scholarly version of political spin (the film elides the play's more explicit parallels with British politics). And Frances de la Tour's pragmatic, compassionate ironist Mrs Lintott cuts through the laddish effusiveness like a cheesewire, dryly spitting out some of the prize one-liners.

Oddly, though, the performance that truly comes into its own on screen is Clive Merrison's twitchy, results-obsessed stick of a headmaster. Merrison isn't afraid to be cartoonish, pitching himself somewhere between Basil Fawlty and downtrodden, archaic Sir from The Bash Street Kids; the touch of sitcom in his wonderfully prickly playing is one of the film's more screen-specific elements.

There's no faulting Hytner in capturing the nuances both of performance and of meaning: he makes you acutely aware of the text of this drama. The cast go at the several show-stopping scenes with gusto, wit and tenderness, from the knockabout of the boys acting out a French brothel scene ("Oh! Quelle belle jambe!") to Hector's mournful, intimate explication of a Hardy poem. Yet these scenes still feel theatrical: these are the stage moments in which the dramatic tension is directly related to an audience holding in its breath or allowing itself to guffaw.

On stage, you're aware of an illusion being established; you collude in the fiction that the set is a Northern grammar school, that these strapping actors in their twenties are teenage boys. In other words, you get a sense of metaphor, which vanishes here. The film is shot in two actual schools, and there couldn't be anything more real than these drab classrooms and corridors (visually, the film's as flat as an episode of Please, Sir!). Hytner barely opens the play out, with just a handful of brief outside excursions (Griffiths in leather on his moped, like a medicine ball on wheels, makes a rather obvious running gag). But the pacing is claustrophobic, as one class period merges into the next - it feels like double English, with a lot of curriculum to bash through in two hours.

One problem is that Hytner has taken an experienced crack squad of a cast and simply moved them from one terrain into another. Where he could have re-thought the work from the ground up, he's kept a team that has grown into the production and developed a telepathic ensemble style. But one player has changed: the audience has been replaced by the camera, which unavoidably sees things differently. The actors retain certain collusive, knowing smiles, which work on stage to signal an awareness of the element of play-acting. But on film, the realistic setting makes everything literal, so that there's something uncomfortably bizarre about seeing these beefy, self-assured "teenagers" flaunting their Bennettian wit and launching into flamboyant impromptu charades.

Hytner's film, in all fairness, achieves what I imagine it sets out to do, but it's neither one thing nor the other. Admittedly, it's a rare pleasure to see any film where intelligence matters, let alone one that's actually an extended advert for the pleasures of thinking.

Still, this isn't a film, but at best, a superior example of set-text cinema.