Saturday, December 30, 2006

Review: The History Boys

Yes, we finally saw it. We went to the first matinee yesterday, reward to myself for finishing the first draft of the paper due tomorrow. Rewards are important -- especially with something like writing where the end result is usually a long way away from the initial "completion."

Not surprisingly, the only place the film was playing was the Spectrum 8, Albany's best movie theater for the discerning film fan. I think we've been to it more than any other theater, including the one nearest us. The theater was surprsingly packed for a weekday, but as Gene noted, it is winter break (although we were among the youngest folks there, so perhaps it is normal for the Spectrum).

Of course, I was already predisposed to love the film. It's hard not to enjoy a film that grapples with some of the key issues that continue to plague teaching when you're a teacher (particularly in the No Child Left Behind era). It's hard not to romanticize the idea of teaching (in contrast to the daily struggle of making progress as a teacher). I don't imagine that my students will go on to become artists and scholars; I'm happy if they can still understand references to books we read earlier in the semester.

Bennett's play turns on a number of complex issues, but a central one is what sort of knowledge is important. Richard Griffith's Hector conveys his love of literature and its magic, mixing the high and the low to keep students from pretentious navel gazing. The slick new instructor, played by "Bright Young Thing" Stephen Campbell Moore, turns the students toward the efficacious in order to win their desired goal -- admission to Oxbridge. Naturally enough, the boys themselves become a pendulum between the two approaches, alternately swayed one way or the other as they feel the benefits of each approach.

But the key moment comes from the much overlooked Totty, played by the amazing Frances de la Tour (last seen as the giant Madame Maxime in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). She disposes of both approaches with an insightful spade of feminist scholarship, snapping, "History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket." Typically enough, the men smirk behind her back and go on with the mock interviews.

It's only a moment, but it's the best moment of the film -- and it's a film filled with wonderful moments. While many of the moments are expected, there are a number of surprising developments and a lot of good laughs (this is Alan Bennett after all -- Gene pointed out how very Bennett-like the weaselly headmaster's last speech is). I can't wait to see the play in London!

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