Because there will always be an England, there will always be English stories about some brilliant professor or other whose profound positive influence on the boys under his tutelage is colored by wittily expressed memories of the old goat’s foolish (rather than harmful) homosexual hanky-panky. Had The History Boys been an American play (rather than a Tony award-laden import from Britain’s famed National Theatre), the peccadillo that catches up with corpulent, charismatic general studies teacher Mr. Hector (Harry Potter’s corpulent, charismatic Richard Griffiths) would more likely be pot-smoking or a thing for wearing panties on his head at home than a penchant for genially groping a teenage boy’s genitals while the untraumatized student tolerates the ritual on the back of Hector’s motorcycle. The frightfully eloquent British playwright Alan Bennett (The Madness of George III) tosses off Hector’s handiwork as the minor foible of a lonely, passionate, sympathetic fellow, which I don’t buy.
Anyhow, The History Boys is as much about the meaning and value of reading and learning as it is about the ho-humness of genital fondling by sir with love: Is education important as an end in itself or as a means to making one’s way in the world? For the eight unpolished public-school boys in northern England prepping for acceptance into Oxford and Cambridge in 1983, the question isn’t an idle one. The arrival of a hipper, younger smoothy tutor (Stephen Campbell Moore) who represents the pragmatic approach sets the energetic, articulate debate in motion, with various teachers and boys making smart speeches (and quoting poetry) on behalf of one way of living or the other.
The movie adaptation has been lifted from the theater with original cast and director Nicholas Hytner intact; the actors interact as cozily as chums on a playing field, even when the camera fusses with landscape long shots in an effort to think outside the stage, and in reaction-shot close-ups that fondle the boys’…faces.