The following contains spoilers for the plot of ‘The History Boys’
I was texting a friend the recipe I’d used for some batter and told her “1/2 tsp baking Posner,” and that’s how she learned I’d just rewatched The History Boys. “Did it hold up?” she asked, mild, instigating, and I just yelled. Did it hold up! Did it hold up in 2006!?
The thing is, you can hardly bring up The History Boys without having to acknowledge, you know, the pederasty of it all. Or so one might think! Amazingly, I once did write about The History Boys without ever really getting into that, in fact got published for the first time doing that. I’m stewing that it’s impossible to tell you this without you now also knowing this old piece of writing exists, but to elide this detail about my history with the Boys of same would be about as un-Gricean as, well, what could be a good example.
And here’s my do-over, anyway. Really it’s not a punishment, it’s an indulgence.
It’s probably fitting actually that I rewatched this right in the thick of all the Abrahamic religions going through their annual spring parabolas of asceticism and decadence, that seems right for this. The kind of denial and sacrifice of “Do Jews have monks?” “Yes. I’m one now,” or “The things I do for Jesus,*” on one hand, and then on the other hand, moments that make you feel like you’re committing some unfathomable sin. The scene where Dakin propositions Mr. Irwin—sorry!! we’re just getting right into it!—must give off the most erotic danger I’ve ever seen captured on film. The energy of that scene, it just takes a room in hand, the screen practically seems to widen as everyone’s breath suddenly holds, nerves humming. I know because I’ve been in many of those rooms.
I talked before about bringing this movie to people, linked it to a bent for sharing art grown out of my own experience in a close-knit high school class with a remarkable amount of parallels to the one in this story (NOT some parts through, to be very clear!). But I think I see further now that it was also to create another kind of company, a sort of community in…trauma is too strong, tumult? Just, others who too have traversed the perilous sexual landscape of The History Boys (2006).
It’s one of those fascinating British artifacts, in the manner of Withnail & I—that 20 year period where Britain was making movies where whether they were initially or not, are now entirely queer movies for queers, while also reading like a fear-mongering pamphlet on perhaps the ultimate homophobic bogeyman: a sad, effete, overtly predatory older gay man, somehow always played by Richard Griffiths? Cursed Letterboxd list.
The History Boys seems in some ways to just double down on what Withnail & I was doing, in both aspects at once, which is a wild experience. Our pretty young man possibly in love with his male friend and being threatened with molestation by a character played by Richard Griffiths, is now multiple even younger schoolboys absolutely in love with their male friends and actually being molested by a character played by Richard Griffiths. Unlike Withnail & I however, The History Boys was written by a bisexual playwright and directed by a gay filmmaker. Does that change things?? I think so??
Because for all of the movie’s seemingly undeniable homophobia in its supposition that as often as not, being an academic gay can doom you to a lonely and stilted life where you either may or merely be tempted to touch the students you’re entrusted with teaching—three generations depicted, baby!—there’s also the beguiling ways in which this movie feels positively anti-homophobic. No one (besides the antagonistic headmaster I guess, who dislikes everything) reacts with any ill-will at Posner’s open crush on Dakin, with any shock at Hector and Irwin’s open secrets, or with anything but jealousy at Dakin’s developing crush on Irwin.
There is teasing and scandal and hurts among them, but it’s all exactly as it would be if these were heterosexual passions crisscrossing friends and student/teacher lines. As it is, the story practically seems to take place in a homo-normative environment, in Yorkshire in the 1980s. I have a feeling this feature is part of what lends this movie a kind of fantasy/comfort film position among some queer audiences. It also helps that for all that Hector’s bike rides should be damaging them, the boys seem remarkably…fine? Bolstered primarily by their fellowship with each other (queer fantasies, again!), they treat with wry lightness the “fumblings” they take in turn, from a complexly but truly loved man who seems no monster to them, but just, as Hector himself tells Irwin they think of him, an old fool.
The boys seeming okay is not though to say what is happening is okay! It is not! I actually think it’s quite well done that Hector is afforded space to do essentially what I kind of just did, attempt to soft-pedal what he is doing, to intellectualize it as something not wholly abusive, really, only for Tottie to firmly and clearly remind with a line that functions as exactly the final word on that as you would want a line that good to: “Hector darling love you as I do, that is the most colossal balls. A grope is a grope, it is not the Annunciation.”
Really The History Boys is what the internet’s ‘dark academia’ should be (fantasies, fantasies!), if that largely aesthetic genre weren’t so enamored of those old stones Hector nearly mistook for learning. You know I neglected to mention last time, that when we too were reciting quotations by heart and carrying out skits to mock our vice-principal if he wandered into our classroom, we were also doing so in a more culturally remote, working class community, at a school that was not in the habit of sending students to elite colleges. Perhaps it’s my personal bias talking, but I think the geographic and economic setting is essential to the way this story carries out. There’s something about the wit and resilience of these boys that feels specifically…northern. Just speaking from one north to another.
Anyway. Filmcraft—as a movie itself, do I think it’s that good? It’s hard to say honestly. There are parts that really feel like the play they came from, and not necessarily in a good way, although I often find that charming myself, just as who I am. There are some overly pat moments and clunky transitions. I had somehow forgotten the way it fucking ends, unreal! Did that ever work?! There is also though a scene that I think is one of my favorite scenes in a movie. End of sentence.
When I think about the Brief Encounter scene, it feels like everything this film wants to do, everything it is saying, in a sudden perfect prism that refracts its light across everything around it. The rhythm: perfect. The content: perfect. Even more than the “The best moments in reading” scene; no, this one is the thesis. It captures everything about that particular arresting joy that can only be felt in learning something. Knowing a work, doing the work. Memorization, art and scholarship in equal measure. And a fellow community rooted in recognition of it. When they all shush Irwin…! It’s their favorite part…. This scene is it. And it’s also kind of my thesis on theater as well, natch—that sometimes it’s only through heightened, “stagey” theatricality of presentation that the truest tenderness can be felt and expressed between performers and audiences. Again: doing the work, and recognition of the work.
That’s where this movie is best of course: the performances. I mean to take it back to that Dakin/Irwin scene, that is just a blandly lit classroom, nothing going on in art direction, camera set-ups, score, any of it, it’s ALL simply in these actors performing these lines. It’s a play! And it’s theirs. They’re all indelible, but god, if I can play for keeps for a second, every line delivery Jamie Parker goes with in this is my favorite, and some of them don’t even have words. Honestly I don’t think what we’re watching here is even all that concerned with being a movie really, it’s just filming a good recording of these actors in the roles they originated on stage. It feels special, because of that.
And because it allows itself to be so, so fucked up and complicated. Something about this messy, yearning, sweet, worrisome depiction of a life of the mind and both gay longings and gay abuse, some scenes so very troubling, others all over horny and enlivening, and yet others both at once—it’s just some kind of feeling! One that, for better or worse, stays with you.
Did it hold up? It lasts.
“Are we scarred for life, d’you think?”
“We must hope so…”
* did you also immediately know this line as a pun on Jesus College, Oxford, or are you normal