Let me preface this post with the caveat that there are a few movies about which I agree with the hype (uncomfortable though it makes me), namely Children of Men and Little Children.
Now then, besides the obvious Pan’s Labyrith whose hype outshines all other examples (still only 5 negative reviews out of 135 on RT?!) I’d say the biggest disappointment for me was The History Boys.
I don’t know whether or not it was hyped in the US like it was here, where it was also followed by universal accolades, but it was sold as the British Dead Poet’s Society (not necessarily a good thing but still…) and I’ve never felt so tricked into buying a ticket (apart from Pan).
I rarely judge a movie for its content but the fact is that The History Boys is a delusional pedo fantasy. At first the pedo aspect just seems like a quirk of one of the teachers, a relatively innocent flaw that makes him human, but in the final act (with a revelation I won’t spoil) it becomes clear that the whole movie is about this.
Furthermore the behavior of all the boys, not just in tolerating their tutor’s predeliction but light-heartedly indulging it, is incredible to the point of delusion on the part of the playwright, and one of the straight boy’s proposition of another male tutor can be explained only as the fantasy of the author.
It attempts to avoid criticism by portraying its theme as the struggle of being homosexual, presumably in order to decry condemnation as homophobic, but I ask you would the movie have been acceptable if the students were girls instead of boys?
This isn’t to say I wasn’t involved in the movie as a drama, but at the same time I had to fight against successive waves of disbelief. It purports to be about the transmission of knowledge and its historically erotic associations, but it turns out in the end that education is only a metaphor (or pretense) for teacher-student relationships rather than vice versa.
I grant that it was cleverly written, using gay rights as a kind of human shield for breaching the trust that ought to exist between a teacher and his students without quid pro quo, and offering a nostalgic eulogy for sexual abuse in British education by romanticizing classical notions of the erotic transmission of knowledge.
So it is expertly crafted in the sense that it is ingenuously muddled, making us root (rightly) for education over exam-passing, attempting a transference of sympathy to the sexual politics of old-fashioned education, and then sucker-punching anyone who wouldn’t be fooled by it into associating themselves with the new tutor who is finally revealed to be a repressed hypocrite. It’s like when Christopher Walken told the centaur applicant on SNL, “Sorry, it was a horse!”
But I guess the universal admiration for it proves the point of the young tutor who said it doesn’t matter if your essay is right, what matters is whether it’s interesting. And what’s more interesting than putting the pedo back in pedagogy?
On that level I suppose the movie might be a self-conscious satire that contains within it its own critique. The play/movie is like one of the student’s essays which is written purely to be provocative but obviously is rubbish if not morally irresponsible. But could playwright Bennett be that self-ironic?
The movie also cheats by having an unforseen circumstance preempt the teacher-student “date”, so that the movie never has to deal with the consequences of its message. I think that is simply dishonest.