These schoolboys, blurrily indistinguishable from each other for a large part of the film, basically run wild in their loosely structured classes, re-enacting scenes from old Bette Davis movies, bursting into song recitals, and occasionally dropping their pants and lying supine on desks, whilst prattling saucy entendres in French. All while apparently they are studying history in order to ace the entrance exams to the esteemed university of their choice (either Oxford or Cambridge, of course).
Except The History Boys has a sexual undercurrent buzzing through the movie. Not necessarily an enticing one, either. See, their beloved teacher Hector (the jovial and sad Richard Griffiths) likes to take the boys for a spin after school on his motorbike, and uses the jaunt as an opportunity to give the lads a bit of a grope. The boys tolerate it and laugh about it, because they basically feel kind of sorry for Hector. After all, he stops when they tell him to. Hmmm. It isn’t until a “lollipop” woman (a school crossing guard) sees him in action, that it is suggested to anyone around that it might be wrong.
There is also a new dynamic young teacher named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), boasting the glow of an Oxford background, brought in to teach the kids a thing or two. Their education has supposedly been traditional, but Irwin tells them that in order to ace the admissions interviews for those prestigious institutions, they have to take chances, be bold, and take risks in their opinions. His teachings clash against those of beloved Hector (not to mention their other sassy teacher, Mrs. Lintott, played fabulously dry by Frances De La Tour), and the boys have to learn to be bold, and make up their own minds about their destiny as intellectuals. Or something.
Now, let’s get back to the groping. In an age of teacher-student scandals, it is strange and more than a little uncomfortable to see the sort of “copping a feel is all fun and games” attitude throughout the film. And the story even takes it a step further, when one of the boys, Dakin (Dominic Cooper)—a devilishly handsome straight boy who can have anyone he wants—becomes intrigued by, then sexually aggressive toward the young teacher Irwin. It is though the movie is slyly checking out the audience with a superior and haughty gaze, daring viewers to accept the various improprieties going on in the film. Go on, it’s kind of sexy, isn’t it? That teacher/student sexual tension?
And just when The History Boys is ready to take it all a step too far, it totally cops out with one of the most groan-worthy cliched endings I’ve seen all year. Where it attempts to be daring in its story, it ends up being creepy; where it tries to be intellectually exciting, it usually comes across as pompous. There ARE occasional moments that shine, like a one-on-one poetry discussion between Hector and the token gay boy, or the time where their female teacher goes on a brilliant tirade about the role of men versus women in history, and I do admit the film is well-acted… But these moments were few and far between for me. The rest of the time I wanted to grab a hall pass and go out and wait in the lobby for it to be over.