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‘The History Boys’ is a so-so lesson

The film’s stage roots are rather clunkily left showing by acclaimed theater director Nicholas Hytner
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some rare movies capture the intimate sense of a live-theater performance, the emotions so raw that the cinematic event horizon between actors and audience vanishes so viewers almost feel the performers are right there in the room.

“The History Boys,” adapted from Alan Bennett’s unlikely stage hit about brainy British schoolboys, tries hard to break through the screen barrier and bring that intimacy into the movie theater.

But the film’s stage roots are rather clunkily left showing by acclaimed theater director Nicholas Hytner, who oversaw the stage version and also made excellent movie adaptations of “The Crucible” and “The Madness of King George.”

“The History Boys” feels too much like a filmed play, and filmed not all that gracefully. The many inevitable classroom scenes are stagy and static, while Hytner awkwardly wedges in segments that try to expand the story outside the cloistered school walls.

What the film does retain are the tremendous performances from the cast, whose main players are reunited from the original stage version, including Tony winners Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour.

The story is simple. A group of eight star students at a small school in Northern England are vying for slots at Oxford and Cambridge. For very different reasons and with very different methods, their schoolmasters want the boys to succeed, though the faded dreams that the adults transfer to the youths often get sidetracked by the disappointments life has dealt them.

Head coach for the boys is general studies teacher Hector (Griffiths), a gregarious twist on the Mr. Chips brand of inspiring, beloved mentor. The portly Hector is more concerned with leaving diamonds in the minds of his boys than grooming them for the material world, his unsavory attachment to some of the youths providing the story’s key drama.

De la Tour co-stars as Mrs. Lintott, a tough, no-nonsense history teacher with an affectionate friendship for longtime pal and colleague Hector despite their radically different teaching approaches.

To counter Hector’s unorthodox, eyes-not-quite-on-the-prize methods, which include overseeing the boys’ re-creations of scenes from classic movies such as “Brief Encounter,” the headmaster (Clive Merrison) brings in a ringer to help guide the students in their university preparations.

Eager young teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) arrives with pointed methods intended to give the students the polish they’ll need to wow the lords of Oxford and Cambridge and win admittance.

A wry, understated rivalry arises as Hector and Irwin joust for the souls of the boys, Irwin representing education to pass the test as opposed to Hector’s education to humanize and illuminate.

Griffiths, relegated to character-actor status on film in the past, was born for this role, bringing marvelous teddy-bear sweetness to a man who also has a disturbing undercurrent of self-doubt and unsatisfied desire.

The rest of the cast delivers in every respect, their familiarity with one another and Bennett’s densely clever dialogue from their many stage performances helping to build easy rapport on screen.

What’s noticeably lacking is the expansiveness a film adaptation can bring. Hytner yanks the characters outdoors here and there, but the settings add little color, the backgrounds mostly as drab as the stuffy classrooms.

Many scenes are passively, unimaginatively shot, and some close-ups are jarringly close. A climactic highway scene involving Hector and Irwin is filmed so crudely it’s jolting.

Hytner and company might just as well have settled for arranging cameras around the stage and filming the play, letting the performances speak for themselves.