Friday, December 15, 2006

And the Oscar for Best Actor Goes to...

Richard Griffiths.


I didn't know either until yesterday when I saw "The History Boys," a magnificent film which comes a very close second to "Little Miss Sunshine" as my pick for best movie of 2006.

Griffiths, however, is even better than the film. In the role of Hector, the obese, eccentric and poetic teacher at a British boys school in the 1980s, he inspires, provokes and appalls. The fact that he is a closet homosexual and likes to occasionally grope his pupils is more of a character flaw than a moral one. They, and the audience, will forgive him his failings because of his ability to teach and interpret history for them in passionate and surprising ways. Quoting A.E. Houseman, Hector declares -- between a musical hall song by one student and an imaginary scenario between several students in a house of prostitution to practice French -- that "all human knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use." Hector is the teacher I once wanted to be, and a better version of the one Robin Williams attempted to portray in "Dead Poets Society." Griffiths fills this role of a lifetime with witticisms, mannerisms and expressions that both repulse and delight, and he shambles down the halls of the school in a body that would make Charles Laughton and Orson Welles seem puny.

Hector's foil is the younger Irwin (played by Stephen Campbell Moore). Both teachers are preparing the students for the Oxford/Cambridge entrance exam in history. Irwin tells them that history nowadays "is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment." And truth "is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease." For Hector, however, history matters. He loves the subjunctive view in which the "events" of history can be seen from multiple perspectives. But his is not a superficial look at life, however, but one that engages it head on, while the more youthful Irwin cooly pontificates from his ivory tower (another closet homosexual). It is Hector's personal style of teaching, which uses popular culture as an entrance to timeless truths, that Irwin and the headmaster (a militaristic twit played by Clive Merrison) want to show as out of fashion. But it is the history boys that ultimately benefit from it.

Any film that can features quotations, several of them, from the writings of my favorite philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, is unparalleled. Responsible for that, and dialogue that is intelligent, funny and stimulating (all that the same time!) is the well-known British author and playwright, Alan Bennett. "The History Boys" was a smash hit in London and on Brodway and won a record number of Tony awards this year. The original cast comes to the screen directed by Nicholas Hytner who also crafted the stage version.

While the actors playing the boys all do a superb job, the other role of note in the film is that of Dorothy Lintott, an older woman history teacher with a deep voice and a well-worn face (played wonderfully by Frances de la Tour). At one point, exasperated by her colleagues, she tells the students that history "is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. History is women following behind with the bucket."

Griffiths might be best known as the unpleasant Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films. He is so dominant in "The History Boys" that I can't imagine missing him in other films. If there is any justice in Hollywood, he should be up on that stage on Academy Awards night receiving his Oscar.

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