Monday, December 18, 2006

The History Boys

The History Boys packs a lot into a small movie because of the density of Alan Bennett's wit, which isn't just verbal irony, though verbal itony is all over the place in the film. His real interest shows up in an exchange like this:

Dakin: Do you think Poland was taken by surprise, sir?
Irwin: Possibly. But I'm pretty sure they knew something was up.

Or words to that effect. This turns out to be maybe the funniest moment in a very funny movie. And you can't explain why without totally spoiling the joke. But more than any preaching any character does--and the screenplay mercifully cuts down on the preaching in the play--the exchange addresses the movie's interest in the embodiment of ideas in persons, and people's retreat from life into ideas, and sex and power, and very refreshingly wins over the viewer to a sensibly adult view of the possibilities of sex outside of conventional better judgments. It is three-dimensional in its dramatuc structure and dialogue, even if it's a little two-dimensional in its portrayal of the external world.

It's a pretty sentimental story, Goodbye Mr. Chips played out in a world in which the possibility of a friendly blow job is overtly acknowledged (as it must have been sometimes in the real world a real Mr. Chips would have lived in). One kind of strange, sentimental lapse is the apparent failure to distinguish between Irwin and Hector, as if to overlook their differences in order to underline their similarities, which don't need any emphasis. The film seems to play it from a schoolboy point of view, as if what mattered was that one is kind of cool and thus holds more power than the other, who's sympathetic but with the emphasis on the "pathetic." But this is just a version of a very old-fashioned view of love as suffering and self-denial. Once in a while, while you're watching History Boys, you actually long to encounter an adult character who is as blithe about having a wank as a real human being might be.

And it's awfully good ensemble acting. It'd be a bit odd if these boys don't turn out to be the next generation of Jude Laws and Clive Owens.

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