'The History Boys' arrives with a great weight of expectation. The Alan Bennett-penned play got rave reviews in England and on Broadway, ran to consistently sold-out theatres and won numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic - three Oliver Awards in London and, in New York, five Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards and six Tonys. It was only a matter of time before it was brought to the big screen but it's not often that the film version can boast the involvement of the original writer, director and cast.
Set in the north of England in 1983 - New Order's 'Blue Monday' is the great signifier here - 'The History Boys' follows eight boys who, having achieved high grades in their A levels, have returned to their grammar school for another term's coaching ahead of the elitist Oxbridge entrance exams. Their teachers include the enthusiastic, occasionally creepy and very shambolic Hector (Griffiths) who looks after General Studies, newly appointed Oxford graduate Irwin (Campbell Moore) and the terribly outnumbered female history instructor Mrs Lintott (de la Tour).
While the plot of 'The History Boys' involves a struggle between Irwin's cynical methodology and the controlled anarchy of Hector's freewheeling classes, complete with the boys singing show tunes and acting out film scenes, the film also focuses on the interplay between the students as they find their own feet in life. Most of the characters have their own defining moment although a few do get short shrift. Good looking Dakin (Cooper) is the cool boy that everyone loves, especially - and exquisitely painfully - the vulnerable Posner (Barnett). Others that stand out are the underestimated Rudge (Tovey) and the highly religious but still warmly human Scripps (Parker).
With a cracking soundtrack featuring The Smiths, the aforementioned New Order, The Clash and The Cure, 'The History Boys' has its antecedents firmly in the realm of schoolboy sagas, from Peter Weir's 'Dead Poets Society' all the way back to the venerable 'Goodbye Mr Chips'. Bennett's dialogue is wonderful throughout, whether he's putting Auden's words in the boys' mouths or letting the wonderfully dry Frances de la Tour rant about "how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude".
The film does, however, occasionally suffer from its stage beginnings. A few of the actors over-project their voices and characters, the cinematography is decidedly pedestrian and some of the set pieces, although entertaining, do feel very staged. All the lighthearted momentum built up early on in the film is lost in the final third as the focus changes from educational competition to complex sexual matters but fortunately there are enough nuanced performances, good humour and wit to (mainly) make the pluses outweigh the weaknesses in this affectionate, bittersweet portrayal of school days and of teachers beloved, despite their peccadilloes and pederasty.