Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The History Boys and The Return

[The History Boys (Nicholas Hytner, 2006): Alan Bennett's play was a sweeping success when it hit Broadway, grabbing several Tony awards and gaining glowing notices. Bennett adapted it himself for this film version, and much of the cast was kept intact, with stars Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour reprising their supporting roles as teachers at a British school in the 1980s. Having just gained excellent A Level results, eight boys are being pushed by their headteacher (a hilariously selfish Clive Merrison) to get into Oxford and Cambridge, the best universities in the country, and to do so they'll have to stay one more term at their old school, preparing for the entry exams with their experienced, portly teacher, whom they have nicknamed Hector (Griffiths) and a new arrival, Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), hired precisely to prepare the boys, but with the headteacher dangling a position as History teacher under his nose as incentive. The History Boys is a warm, affectionate film about a group of unruly boys and their equally unruly teachers; it's sharply and pointedly written and well-performed. But as, in it's second half, the film slides into a rather muggy quagmire of homosexual dilemmas between the two teachers and two of the boys, it rather loses its lustre, slightly loses its edge and ultimately takes on a rather uncomfortable aura of tragedy. But, nevertheless, it's well worth seeing. Hytner finds a surprisingly cinematic possibility within the film's stage origins, never truly overcoming them but adeptly using his camera, especially as he cross-cuts between various conversations in the school's corridors. As for the cast, Griffiths is excellent, a perfectly judged mixture of bouyant humour and deeply-hidden tragedy, while Moore, that enormously underrated actor from the enormously underseen Bright Young Things, follows up on the promise he showed there with a sharp and moving performance as a teacher who becomes as confused as his pupils. De la Tour isn't given enough to do but is very wily when she does appear: a terrific performance of an overlooked woman who wants the best for her boys, since she was never able to have it herself. Of the boys themselves, Dominic Cooper is ruggishly charming and, in his last scenes, alarmingly direct as Dakin, the object of many affections, while Russell Tovey, as the dimmest boy Rudge, finds surprising weight in his under-written role, and Samuel Anderson is an amusing highlight as Crowther, who seems to be the one everyone goes to with their problems. Maybe Bennett leans too much towards the provlocations of homosexuality in some characters and overlooks the others, but The History Boys is well worth seeing for it's sharp wit and solid performances when it comes round your way. Grade: B]

[The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2004): A notably chilly film, this took the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in its year and walked away with some positive comparisons to premiere Russian director Tartovsky. Ivan Dobronranov is superb as Ivan, a young teenager whose father (Konstantin Lavronenko) suddenly reappears after twelve years, unknown by Ivan and his brother Andrey (Vladimir Garin, who died in the very place of the opening scene just one day before the film's premiere) excepting one photograph. This familiar tale of a father returning from the wilderness is given an intriguing edge by director Zvyagintsev, who admirably refuses to give in to any desire to explain anything: the father sticks to his silence about where he was, and it is left to the audience to draw their own conclusions from the few visual clues we're given, and of course from Lavronenko's superb performance. The cool blue colour schemes are notably reminiscent of The Deep End, a thriller which also took place around a cold watery location and had similar themes of secrecy and mistrust. The Return is never predictable, despite occasions when it almost leans that way, but it's cool demeanour is rather off-putting and it's never as entrancing as it clearly wants itself to be- and, indeed, as you find yourself wanting it to be. Grade: B]

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