NYT raves about History Boys movie but concludes it's not great art

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The current of intellectual energy snapping through “The History Boys,” the ferociously engaging screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s Tony Award-winning play, set in a boys’ school in northern England in 1983, feels like electrical brain stimulation. As two teachers jockey for the hearts and minds of eight teenage schoolboys preparing to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, their epigrams send up small jolts of pleasure and excitement. How to teach and interpret history is the question.

One view is represented by Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a hotshot young tutor and symbol of Thatcher-era go-getter mentality, hired by the school to scrape away the rust of received opinion from the students’ thinking so that their answers to test questions will have more “edge.” On the other side is Hector (Richard Griffiths), the poetry-spouting, eccentric teacher of general studies. An obese, 50-something school fixture (imagine a squishier, teary-eyed Charles Laughton or Peter Ustinov), Hector cares deeply about how knowledge is applied to life. A married homosexual, he might be described as Mr. Chips With Kinks.

His pure idealism is measured by his response to a student during a discussion of the Holocaust. When the boy reels off a quote from Wittgenstein — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — Hector scolds him for glibness and for treating the words as “a dinky formula.” A true believer in the humanizing power of education, Hector subscribes to the academic credo of A. E. Housman: “All human knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”...

For all its delights, “The History Boys” is not a world-changing work of art. It is exactly what Irwin calls history: entertainment, a scintillating contrivance that is only as good as its epigrams. Below the surface lies a gooey custard filling.

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