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Birds and bees 'The History Boys' teaches lessons beyond the books

In his book "Untold Stories" -- a witty and occasionally obdurate ragbag of essays, journals and reviews -- Alan Bennett admits how much of his hit play "The History Boys" came from life.

There really was, for instance, a French instructor at his private boy's school who "in a slack period of the afternoon when we were being particularly un-bright . . put his head down on the desk and wailed, 'Why am I wasting my life in this godforsaken school?' " (The scene is far more dramatic in the film.)

Forget "Goodbye Mr. Chips" and "Dead Poets Society." There's nothing simple about this boy's school which -- like all high schools -- is inundated with a perpetual and sometimes precarious hormonal flood. And, as is famously a good deal more customary in English all-boys' schools than ours, homosexual student-on-student "crushes" happen. Also in evidence are the pedophiliac crushes of unhappy teachers for students.

All that is a dramatic side issue to what happens in Bennett's "The History Boys," which is the ever-so-careful preparation of some prodigies in the sixth form (senior year) to take entrance exams and interviews for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Most of these boys are shockingly bright -- "the best we've ever had," marvels their ratty little headmaster. Their most thoughtful and inspirational teacher -- Hector -- is a corpulent French teacher who has a tendency to grope them if they consent to ride on the back of his motorcycle with him.

He is, nevertheless no caricature. He is, in fact, a witty man and a rather profound one too, who knows that "the transmission of knowledge itself is an erotic act" which explains his sanguine acceptance of his own surreptitious desires. It also explains the pickle he finds himself in when his almost-inarguable insight is not exactly applauded by his headmaster.

To get them ready for their Oxford/Cambridge entrance exams and interviews, the headmaster hires another master named Irwin to give them "polish" and "edge." While Hector would be likely to lead a classroom demonstration -- all in French -- on how to seduce a French hooker, it is Irwin who instructs them in the less than fine art of faking it in Academe.

These kids are ready for his tutelage. They quote Auden and Hardy as readily as old Bette Davis movies.

This is largely a movie of the theatrical production which means its literacy is stellar and there are superb performances here, especially Richard Griffiths, as the fat and trapped master Hector and Frances De La Tour as the worldly wise history teacher who defines her subject as men messing up and "women following behind with a bucket."

It isn't often you see a movie about the complex realities of adolescence -- or how vast the distance can be between education and knowledge.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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THE HISTORY BOYS

3 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour and Dominic Cooper

DIRECTOR: Nicholas Hytner

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

RATING: R for language and very brief and clothed teen sex

THE LOWDOWN: Adaptation of Alan Bennett"s play about ravingly bright and hopelessly hormonal boy's school seniors studying to gain admission to Oxford and Cambridge.

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