By Steve Daly
Updated June 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

When moviemakers tackle great-teacher stories, they tend to slip into hagiography. (Witness the diminishing returns on display in Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and The Emperor’s Club.) There’s infinitely more prickly truth in The History Boys, a bittersweet drama about an entrance-exam expert (Stephen Campbell Moore) weaning a group of college-bound lads away from their decidedly antiestablishment English teacher (Richard Griffiths).

The play opened in May 2004 at London’s National Theatre. It racked up huzzahs and awards for director Nicholas Hytner (a stage workhorse who also made the films The Crucible and The Madness of King George) and author Alan Bennett (hardly known to the masses here, but celebrated in England for such impish dramas as The Lady in the Van and the TV monologue series Talking Heads). Now The History Boys has been imported, cast intact, to Broadway. And despite myriad cultural references that U.S. audiences aren’t likely to comprehend completely — from a classroom scene played out in French to copious nods to English authors, actors, pop stars, and old movies — the show translates marvelously well.

How’s that bloody possible? For one thing, Bennett’s case study of warring educational philosophies — instilling a love of knowledge versus girding students to deliver quantifiable results — speaks to what’s happening right now in American schools. (One can well imagine ex-prime minister Maggie Thatcher in paroxysms over the Orwellian aspects of George Bush’s ”No Child Left Behind” program.) But what connect even more directly are the performances. As the increasingly lost dreamer/instructor Hector, Griffiths resembles Roger Ebert gone to seed. He displays a massive midriff that has collapsed, avalanche-like, down into his lower stomach, and when Hector is caught ”fiddling” with a student’s genitalia during a motorcycle ride, the actor makes the man pathetic rather than predatory. Moore has a shark’s mien as the seemingly amoral test-coach mentor, tangling more dangerously with a student crush. And though Frances de la Tour — delectable as the tart-tongued instructor Mrs. Lintott — gets trotted out by Bennett a tad too often to light the play’s grimmest corners, she’s a marvel of drollery.

The eight boys themselves, even after nearly two years’ duty in these parts, hardly seem studied, especially Dominic Cooper as the class peacock, Dakin, and Samuel Barnett as Posner, who’s smitten with Dakin to the point of wide-eyed adulation. Barnett manages to evoke the pain, exhilaration, hope, and despair in a schoolboy’s longings. Posner lurches toward his teachers for support, but sees no useful models. Try finding that in a feel-good teacher movie. (Tickets: 212-239-6200)

The History Boys

  • Movie
  • R
  • 109 minutes
  • Nicholas Hytner