Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
Alan Bennett (playwright) and Nicholas Hytner (director) bring their acclaimed play to the screen, even using the same cast that so impressed theater audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Set in a Yorkshire boy’s grammar school in 1983, the plot revolves around the attempt of their teachers to prep eight boys to ace the tests and interviews for entrance into either Oxford or Cambridge. In Great Britain these are the gateways for achieving the status to enter the upper echelon of society. The boys have all achieved A level grades, so their Headmaster (Clive Merrison) is determined that they succeed—as much for the prestige garnered for himself and his school, as for the sake of the boys themselves.
The boys have been taught history by Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), who later in an outburst reveals her feminist views about the patriarchal school system. Their chief mentor who has striven to instill in them a love for literature and poetry is Hector (Richard Griffiths), a portly lover of language who commutes by motorbike. We are glad that it is high school boys that he teaches, as he likes to fondle them slightly when he offers one a ride. Though he comes right up to but never crosses the line of pedophilia, the triumph of the film is that we come to sympathize with and like what might have been a creepy person—and it is a good thing, because he is the center of the story rather than the eight boys. The treatment of the students is more like a series of character sketches, compared to richly detailed portrait we are given of Hector.
Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a third teacher, is brought into the boy’s lives by the Headmaster as a special coach to prepare them for the tests. He is more into show biz than education, teaching the boys that it is how they present themselves, both physically when they are interviewed, and how they express themselves in their essays and test answers that is important. It is not what you know, but how you appear that will carry the day. They must do or say things that will draw favorable attention to themselves, he stresses, so that they will stand out from the hundreds of other applicants. Hector is upset by this, and we see the two teachers clash when they are together with the boys. Later, in a poignant scene that is alone worth the price of admission, Hector, who has required the students to memorize long passages of poetry, talks with one of the students about a poem by Harding and how at one time there were no public memorials with listings of common soldiers (only of generals and officers).
The sexuality, especially the open and latent homosexuality of some of the students and teachers will make this film unacceptable to many in the church. Too bad, because Hector’s love of the beauty of language, and not just of how it can mask and enhance the speaker’s reputation as with Irwin, is something to ponder, especially in an age when language is being so debased and misused by advertisers and politicians. The play, written in the early 1980s obviously was aimed at Margaret Thatcher, but many will see connections to our own country, where one president equivocated about the meaning of “is” and another plays word games about the success of our invasion of Iraq.
1) Compare Hector and Irwin. Which believes in “the thrill of learning” ? Have you had a teacher than inspired you to study a subject or guided you toward a career or life avocation?
2) Hector has plenty of flaws, but what are his redeeming qualities? Irwin might be superficial, but how is he shown in a positive way? Does this make his corruption of the boy’s values all the more lamentable?
3) Two scenes to closely watch and reflect upon: The discussion of the Holocaust; and Hectors conversation with Hodge involving the Thomas hardy poem.
4) How do we see each teacher influencing the boys? How is Irwin actually helpful in preparing the boys? (For an interesting film that explores the contrast between appearance and substance in a very different area, see Broadcast News.)
5) Were you prepared for Hector’s fate? What do you think he means by “Pass it on, boys. Pass it on” ?