Cult Film: The History Boys

Director: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Richard Griffiths, Dominic Cooper, Frances de la Tour
Year: 2006

Fiona Hardie, Arts Editor

Alan Bennett’s 2004 play, directed by Nicholas Hytner (Director of the National Theatre), finally came to the screen in 2006 with its original stage cast including Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and other faces who have come to be some of the most popular and well-known British actors today. Set in a boys’ grammar school in Sheffield, 1983, it tells the story of eight students who, post-A level results, are attempting to get into Oxford and Cambridge, taught by two teachers whose styles couldn’t be more different. A comedy about life, love and general teenage feelings and problems, perfectly reflecting the era with an outstanding script and 80s soundtrack, it’s a real gem.history_boys

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like anything groundbreaking or thrilling, but that’s part of its appeal. The main plot, on the surface, is the ongoing ‘coaching’ of the boys by different teachers as they study for their entry exams and learn how to ‘act’ when they apply to Oxbridge. There’s constant reams of historical facts in their history classes with Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and those with new teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), and relentless speeches from the headmaster, who so desperately wants them to do well so the school will look good. At the same time, there’s other, underlying themes (some dark, some lighter) which all result in a well-constructed juxtaposition throughout the film.

In ‘general studies’ classes with Mr. Hector (Richard Griffiths) the boys act out scenes from classic films and mess around speaking French; there’s unrequited love and characters struggling to find their identity, or at least begin to figure it out, and the whole thing is casually, whimsically littered with cultural and literary references. This contrast between ‘everyday’ things and more thought-provoking lines like “what’s truth got to do with any of it?” echoes the main contrast in themes: the balance between the boisterous teenage comedy and the sudden, darker drama at times.

Indeed, the film does deal with some dark and problematic themes at times, but it does so sensitively and considerately. It also covers remarkably wide ground in terms of issues it tackles within one narrative: sexuality, feminism, and identity are just some that it begins to approach – and the 1980s context plays a fairly significant role in this.


The performances are warm and skillful from everyone; there isn’t a weak link in the hugely talented ensemble cast. Every character has a different, well-rounded personality and as a viewer you come to appreciate just about all of them by the film’s poignant conclusion.

I don’t really know why this story stirs up so many emotions – it’s just moving and charming on so many levels. Bennett’s original script is at once tender, unruly and brilliantly witty, and this film is a treasure to watch time and again.