History Boys and Miranda

Miranda Devine has come out swinging against this film,  and in particular (helped by the subeditors who might, rather than Miranda, be responsible for the headline) the decision of the Film Censorship Board of Review to rate it “M: for mature audiences only.”

It is tempting to say that the warning proved useless in this case, and I can resist anything except temptation.

Spurred by Miranda’s condemnation, I went to see the film (only $8.50 on a Tuesday at Greater Union, George Street).  I had already seen the play when the National Theatre production toured to Sydney last year.  I seriously wondered if Miranda and I saw the same film.

Miranda describes the film as:

“a pederastic fantasy about teachers who fondle their students’ genitals in the nicest way and the boys don’t mind at all”

and the central character as

“Hector, a loveable, obese, married pedophile and pedagogue played by Richard Griffiths.”

Miranda provides a little critical analysis:

“The only fleshed-out female character is the history teacher played by Frances de la Tour, the horsy, gender-neutral giantess Madame Maxime in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

She knows about Hector’s proclivities but does nothing.”

This last point is a bit misleading.  The character in question knows about Hector’s proclivities, in a general sense, but at the point where she discovers he has acted on them to the point of fondling (which is pederastic in the sense that he is a pedagogue, but not, I think, pedophilic: the boys are studying for scholarships after completing their A levels, and the one gay boy, who looks the youngest is actually exempt from Hector’s attentions), it is hardly to the point whether she should do something, because the headmaster has delivered an ultimatum to Hector to retire at the end of term.

Miranda also summarises some other aspects of the characters and plot:

“It’s about a British boys’ school in the 1980s where all the students are openly or latently gay. Even the flagrantly heterosexual pretty boy, Dakin, who is bedding the headmaster’s busty assistant, seamlessly switches sides, offering oral sex to Irwin, the slimmer of his two gay teachers, out of gratitude for winning a scholarship to Oxford.”

Well, if that doesn’t open a can of worms!  What on earth does “latently gay” mean?  Only one boy is gay.  The others are prepared to camp things up a bit (hasn’t Miranda ever seen The Footy Show?) and Dakin (who is definitely not gay) offers to let Irwin suck him off – perhaps out of gratitude, but equally, one feels, as an exercise of the hold Dakin has over him.  (It is true that, in pursuit of a cheap laugh, Bennett has another boy, who is religious, say that he will be giving thanks, as he takes it Dakin will be, on his knees, but that is not what Dakin himself says.)

Perhaps Miranda got her account of the film at second hand.  Because she explains the source of her story:

“Last weekend I ran into a friend, who is no prude, reeling out of a suburban theatre with his wife and two preteen children. They had walked out of The History Boys just as straight boy Dakin asks his teacher Irwin, ‘if there was any chance of your sucking me off’.”

Woah! That happens about ten minutes before the end of the movie.  The children had presumably dozed through the references to A E Housman and W H Auden as “nancies” and the fact that Auden had possibly interfered with his students much as “Hector” did.  I suppose they scarcely comprehended (and would therefore have been bored shitless by)the early classroom play-acting scene in French which starts out pretending to be in a French brothel and ends in a field hospital somewhere near Ypres.  They were probably left cold by the analysis of a poem by Hardy about drummer Hodge buried somewhere beneath the veldt.  I don’t know what they had made of the scene where the headmaster told Hector that he would have to resign because a lollipop lady at a school pedestrian crossing had reported that he had been observed massaging his students’ genitals whilst giving them a lift home on the back of his motor bike, the scene where Hector’s colleague, played by Frances de la Tour, roundly denounced him for such conduct, or the scenes where Hector and Irwin discussed the question of how they dealt with their attraction to their students and where Dakin made his first suggestion to Irwin (which was the fore-runner of the apparently just-too-much sucking-off proposition).  I imagine the children, if awake, would have been clamouring to be taken home or to MacDonalds by the time their parents took them out.

Miranda continues:

“My friend felt he had been tricked by the M rating and misleading advertising into taking his children to a grossly unsuitable movie which normalises pedophile behaviour and promotes a world view in which heterosexuality is aberrant, women repulsive and marriage a sham.”

The “marriage a sham” line is a reference to a scene where the Frances de la Tour character talks about what women who marry men like Hector want from such men and what they may or may not know about such men.  Maybe it means that some marriages are sham (which is debatable, in the scheme of things) but it hardly sustains the generalised description which Miranda gives it.

And since when did one “repulsive” woman (not fair to Frances de la Tour, not to mention the headmaster’s buxom secretary) in a film amount to “promoting a world view” that all women in general are so?

I can’t work out at all where the claim that the film “promotes a world view” that “heterosexuality is aberrant” comes from.

To return to Miranda:

“How could the Classification Board get it so wrong? The History Boys has the same M rating as Spider-Man 3, Harry Potter and Kenny, while in the US it was rated R because of “strong language and sexually explicit dialogue.”

This of course begs two or even three questions.  Perhaps the rating of Spider-Man 3, Harry Potter and Kenny is the problem.  The question about the US rating is my “even” third question, but the second question is, how could Miranda’s friends have got it so wrong?  Remember, this film was rated M: that means that it is for mature audiences, but not a film which (MA 15+) persons under 15 are prohibited from seeing unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.  Was Miranda’s friend, though “not a prude” (notwithstanding the distorted account of the film which he appears to have given to Miranda), simply too stingy to pay for a baby-sitter?

Miranda addresses this point further, because she doesn’t just blame the censor.

“With our untrustworthy classification system, movie reviews would usually alert parents to offensive content.

But no.”

She then quotes a number of reviews, and summarises her criticism of reviews in general as follows:

“Review after review neglects to acknowledge the elephant in the room.”

Which she contrasts with the acuity of a well-known journalistic standby (not apparently available to her “by no means a prude” friend):

“Wikipedia has no such blind spot, accurately categorising the movie as ‘pederastic film’ and ‘LGBT (lesbian, gay or transgender-related) film’.”

She concludes magisterially:

You don’t have to object to the movie, just to the inexplicable deception of the audience.

I think the first clause in this sentence is disingenuous.  It is clear that Miranda does object to the film, even if only at second-hand. And a pre-requisite to objecting to the film  (what does that mean even? object to pre-teen children being dragged to it?) would be to understand the film, which nobody could do on Miranda’s account of it. After that, we might be in a position to have a useful discussion about the respective roles of censorship boards and reviewers.

And baby-sitters.

16 Responses to “History Boys and Miranda”

  1. Adrian Says:

    I found Miranda D.’s article extremely irritating, for all the reasons you mentioned, but also because her distrust of the ‘elephant’ in the room blinds her to the film’s main preoccupation — that is, with the opposing pedagogical methods of Irwin and Hector. Like you, I think she hadn’t seen the film when she wrote this article; if she had, she would’ve had some sense that Hector is not the film’s hero at all, and that the film is far more ambiguous — and all the better — for not endorsing any particular character. The closest we get to a moral voice or chorus is Frances de la Tour’s character…though she, unlike the audience, is unaware of Hector’s groping of the boys until the final third of the film.

    I should say that the stage play makes Hector’s legacy even murkier than the film does. The film excises at least an hour from the play, most of which comes from the play’s second half and deals with the boys’ lives in the wake of Hector’s and Irwin’s accident.

  2. ninglun Says:

    Great entry, Marcel.

  3. marcellous Says:

    Adrian, thanks for your comment. (Thanks to you, too, Ninglun, of course!)

    I agree with what you say about Hector as “hero,” which is why I chose to describe him as the film’s main character, rather than embark upon a consideration of the difference between “hero” in the tragic and, shall we say, the Indiana Jones sense. There is only so much one can say at one go about the things about Miranda D’s article which were annoying!

    Even the film’s pre-occupation with the opposing pedagogical methods of Irwin and Hector is, I think, more a dramatisation of a debate between different views of education, knowledge and “culture.”

    And yes, the film simplifies the play a lot, principally by removing the flash-back (or do I mean flash-forward?) framing. This makes the “where are they now?” section at the end incredibly clunky, and also sentimentalizes it considerably.

  4. Mitchell Says:

    une prostituée!

  5. Legal Eagle Says:

    I haven’t seen the film. But your post reminded me that I studied Hardy’s poem about Drummer Hodge at my English high school. It’s a very moving poem. I had forgotten about it until now.
    “Yet portion of that unknown plain
    Will Hodge forever be;
    His homely Northern breast and brain
    Grow to some Southern tree,
    And strange-eyed constellation reign
    His stars eternally.”

    We had to compare it with that Rupert Brooke poem:
    “If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there’s some corner of a foreign field
    That is forever England.”

    I vastly prefer the Hardy poem. Much less jingoistic.

  6. James R Says:

    Well said. Evidently Miranda’s friend’s real problem with the M rating applied to the film (which I’ve not seen) is not so much that the OFLC misled him as he was too dumb to know what the M rating actually means (as you rightly say, not restricted to those over 15 but certainly recommended only for them). If you take pre-teens to a film that’s only supposed to be watched by people over 15, that’s your stupidity at work, not someone else’s.

  7. marcellous Says:

    The web being what it is, I am not the only person to have made all these points, and others have made more (as I discovered just now by the obligatory google).

    See also:

    http://artsjournalist.blogspot.com/2007/05/those-naughty-naughty-film-makers.html

    and

    http://www.batrock.net/?p=150

  8. marcellous Says:

    And also:

    http://blogs.samesame.com.au/index.php?op=ViewArticle&articleId=4505&blogId=1329

    and

    http://www.freedomtodiffer.com/freedom_to_differ/2007/05/classification_.html

  9. Ron Says:

    “Last weekend I ran into a friend, who is no prude, reeling out of a suburban theatre with his wife and two preteen children.”

    I rarely read Devine these days, I have so many better things to do with my life.

    Once I got to the above sentence in her rant, I knew it would be a long time before I clicked on another Devine article. Why The Sydney Morning Herald continues to publish her I don’t know. Her natural ‘home’ is obviously The Daily Telegraph.

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  16. Nicole Says:

    Thanks for that! This is my favourite play/film at the moment, I love it!

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