Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Although it was shot with the original cast and director during a break between their London and New York runs, The History Boys is not simply a filming of Alan Bennett’s Tony Award–winning classroom comedy-drama. Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) trimmed and reworked, adding characters and subtracting scenes. And, as people converting theater into cinema often do, they took the script outdoors whenever possible, staging scenes on motorbikes and in historic ruins. Yet for all that, the movie is overwhelmingly, indisputably playlike. It’s never more effective than when its flawless ensemble cast is arrayed on a simple classroom set, bantering about history, education, and the film’s not-so-secret secondary theme, homosexual attraction. The premise is hardly action-flick material: At a middling Sheffield boys’ school in 1983, eight students score so surprisingly well on their college qualifying exams that the headmaster thinks they might get into Oxford or Cambridge. The man who’s led the boys to this success is Hector (Richard Griffiths), a portly, old-fashioned oddball who teaches his students poetry, French, and show tunes, as well as history. (He also likes to grope their crotches now and then, although this never leads to anything more untoward.) With victory looming, the headmaster decides to supplement Hector with the younger, hipper Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who’s also gay. He’s to teach the boys how to impress Oxbridge recruiters with “edge” rather than knowledge, an assignment that allows the characters to debate the very purpose of learning. The film buzzes with teenage bravado, its aphorisms juiced by sexual tension and underscored by instrumental snippets of the Smiths, the Clash, and the like. Yet the various set pieces—including classroom performances of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and a scene from Brief Encounter—play as what they originally were: stage business. Their purpose is not to reveal character but merely to break up all the talk. While such sequences may have soared onstage, onscreen they mire the film in its theatrical origins. A few real-world locations aren’t enough to prevent The History Boys from feeling largely artificial.

—Mark Jenkins