Ok. I haven’t seen the West End version of this. I’m therefore going to be reviewing it based solely on the film’s impact, not the play. So any West End rah-de-rah fans trying to defend the original can put down their duelling gloves. Though they could pick them back up again to defend against the outrageous stereotype I’ve just written.
To get to the bottom of my problem with this film (that’s right. I have a problem with it) I have to quickly point out something. There’s a big difference between a stage play and a film. Granted both are story-telling mediums, and I like both equally. But they are still different. You can show in film, whereas you have to rely more on telling in theatre. Mainly because film gives you control over the audience’s focus. You can edit scenes, use lighting, framing and close-ups. In theatre you can still use clever lighting, but you can’t show the intricate twitches of an actor’s eyes to indicate their feelings. There is no zoom in theatre. Unless the actors pause and suddenly side step up to the audience’s faces. A concept which, though amusing, is implausible, especially when there’s tiered seating. So theatre relies more heavily on dialogue, be it clever (conversations that reveal hidden intentions and emotions) or a bit of a cop-out (bloody monologues). And in film, though dialogue is still very important, there are more elements to play with.
So, to the point of my ramblings. The History Boys is a play, and on screen it is still very much a play. A play without the intimate atmosphere of a theatre. Though the cast are obviously very talented, they are still belting out their lines as if to make sure the people at the back can hear. We can all hear boys – there’s a fricking great microphone above your heads. Every line, though often wittily constructed by accomplished writer Alan Bennett, is punched out, word for word, clear enough so you can hear it but with little or no true emotion. Again, it probably works brilliantly on stage. But on film it left me completely unengaged with the characters, save for a couple who were played, not surprisingly, by more experienced actors on screen. Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Stephen Campbell Moore were the trio of teachers who managed to deliver their lines in a quieter, mumbled fashion, like what we do in the real world.
And ok, maybe my biggest vice is unrealistic dialogue, a common problem in play-to-screen types (see Closer) so maybe I’m being more pedantic than usual. But I was, how to put it, BORED a lot of the time. It didn’t help that the ‘boys’ (played by actors who seemed to range from 18 to 30 years old) were irritating little pricks. I mean, really. I was sniped at for being a swot at school (unfairly – I wasn’t out to please the teachers, I just had a brain) but at least I didn’t quote poetry and break into song all the time. I know I was supposed to care whether the lads got into Oxbridge or not, but to be honest I just wanted them all to die horribly. Extra irritation ensued because of the token characters. Yey to PC, there’s a black kid and an Asian one, but their characters were so totally underdeveloped that it meant the only thing you could define them by was their race, which surely goes against the PC point. There was also a fat one, a gay one, a religious one, a thick one (why he was in the mix of lads trying for Oxbridge, I don’t know) and a flirty one. It’s characterisation, Spice-Girl style.
Side plots involving a kiddie-fiddling teacher who we were supposed to feel sorry for because he was a ‘nice chap’ were just odd. And it had about three or four endings, all of which made the point of the piece more and more obscure. What was it about? Homosexuality in schools? Differing teaching styles and their effect on pupils? History? Perhaps I completely missed the point, and it’s probably because I stopped listening as the dialogue continued to pour forth like bacterial infected blood from a relentlessly singing, poetry-quoting wound.
I can see that this would be a good piece on stage, and it obviously is since it’s been very successful. But its transfer to film has been, quite frankly, lazy. The dialogue and the delivery need to be smudged and blended so that it flows more smoothly in the film environment. The script should have been altered to account for the new medium. It doesn’t need elaborate explanations of people’s feelings anymore – we can see them, or we should be able to. All in all I seem to be much crosser than I had originally planned, so instead of losing the one point for clunky transition to screen, it’s losing an extra point for making me rant for longer than usual. Fair? By the book of Cinemafool it is, and it’s getting CF-2.