3 stars (out of four)
The film taken from Alan Bennett's charming play "The History Boys" doesn't do much to disguise its stage origins. Certain performances, particularly that of Clive Merrison's sniveling headmaster, are so broad you may want to move to the back -- of another theater entirely. Nicholas Hytner, head of London's National Theatre, has directed several films now without learning much about where to put the camera. England's gray skies notwithstanding, Andrew Dunn's dank cinematography doesn't help.
Yet the film is worth seeing, if you have any fondness for the writer who co-created "Beyond the Fringe" and who is second only to Stoppard in his sprightly but mellow wit. The original London and New York stage cast returns for Hytner's film. The largest physical specimen of the bunch, Richard Griffiths, paradoxically delivers the most delicate and cinematically subtle of the film's performances.
A bow tie surrounded by a balloon of a man, Griffiths plays Hector, the most old-fashioned and least goal-oriented of the instructors charged with preparing a group of eight Yorkshire grammar school boys, nearly men, for their Cambridge and Oxford entrance exams.
A great believer in the liberal arts, Hector is also a letch and a borderline pedophile, known for feeling up his students when he gives them rides home (to his "somewhat unexpected wife," in the words of a fellow teacher played by Frances de la Tour). A third instructor, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), represents a new wave of teacher, more cynical and practical. He is also vulnerable to the dodgy advances of Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the primarily straight Lothario of the boys.
Bennett's early 1980s universe is one of constant, bubbly conversation and Rodgers and Hart ballads sung 'round the piano. "The History Boys" worked effortlessly on stage with this cast; on screen, some of the dialogue sounds arch in the extreme, whereas in the theater it sounded arch in the extreme but enjoyably so. Director Hynter counters the staginess of his material by laying on the handheld, off-the-cuff camerawork in the classroom scenes, intercutting medium shots and close-ups without much sense of when to go for what.
Yet the best of the acting redeems that archness. Griffiths has a couple of scenes that truly deserve the adjective Chekhovian, where a "saddish" life is glimpsed in all its longing. If you take "The History Boys" as a filmed record of a somewhat unexpected stage phenom foremost, chances are you'll relax into and let some performers take it from there.
'The History Boys'
Directed by Nicholas Hytner; screenplay by Alan Bennett and Hytner, based on Bennett's play; cinematography by Andrew Dunn; edited by John Wilson; production design by John Beard; music by George Fenton; produced by Kevin Loader, Hytner and Damian Jones. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: R (language and sexual content).
Hector -- Richard Griffiths
Irwin -- Stephen Campbell Moore
Mrs. Lintott -- Frances de la Tour
Headmaster -- Clive Merrison
Posner -- Samuel Barnett
Dakin -- Dominic CooperCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times