Mr Chips meets Dead Poets Society in Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play, and depending on how you approach it, it’s either a fairly satisfying or a slightly disappointing event. Personally, I was disappointed, but then maybe I’d expected more from a film which as a play had garnered such critical plaudits. Or maybe it was the play-iness of the whole thing that stuck slightly in the craw.
The story concerns a bubbly class of boisterous Sheffield boys in the 1980s being crammed for Oxford and Cambridge by a gaggle of teachers – Hector the advocate of the thirst for knowledge (Richard Griffiths), Mr Irwin the teacher to the test (Stephen Campbell Moore), and Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) the feminist teacher whose political agenda, she believes, enhances her effectiveness. Bennett does two things with the action that are interesting. First, he introduces what has become now a standard sexual trope – the enthusiastic and brilliant Hector accused of molesting one of his boys. But he flips agency here entirely, pointing out that middle aged men are as nothing in the predation stakes when compared to adolescent boys. In other words, Hector hasn’t got anything on the precocious teenage tease Dakin (Dominic Cooper, the film’s standout).
Hector et al might be said to be representative of 1980s teachers, and the odd snatch of New Order or The Smiths seems to locate us in the decade, but Bennett is also indulging in a compare-and-contrast exercise, the 1980s with the sort of teaching he got in the 1940s, the modern box-ticking exercise with the sort of classic teaching (of the classics) that didn’t think elitism was a bad thing, that set no store by a kid’s knowledge of popular music.
While the acting is beautifully ripe, particularly Griffiths, it can get a bit declamatory, and it’s no surprise to find that this is the cast who have performed the same thing on stage so often. But then the play is a bit declamatory too, each issue getting its own neatly rounded “essay” as person A steps forward to rail against subject A, while the rest of the cast do the filmic version of backing away from the spotlight.
This is down to Bennett’s screenplay, which seems at times more interested in pulling an “and another thing” on education today, it not being what it was in my day etc…
So it’s no Madness of King George, a Bennett play that translated majestically to film. But it does have that film’s ping-pong exuberance and furious love of language. To miss the film is to miss the joy of the verbal interchanges, between the boys, the boys and the teachers, the teachers among themselves, and boys and teachers with the driven headmaster (Clive Merrison). And to miss Stephen Campbell Moore doing remarkable things with a dog of a role. Give that man a gold star.
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© Steve Morrissey 2006