Reviews: The Historian

Michelle goes back to college with The Historian

The Historian is a noble attempt at making an intricate drama and character piece but unfortunately, weak writing and an indistinct narrative make it seem like a Lifetime movie with delusions of grandeur. The film is set in a college university which is the new home of Ben Rhodes (played by Miles Doleac, who also directed the film) a professor with a troubled past. Ben has to reconcile his former life with his new job environment, navigate some sticky dating situations and contend with Valerian Hadley (William Sadler), the grouchy head of his department. 

While the premise of the plot is interesting enough, the slow and meandering way it unfolds absolutely kills the pacing of the film. There are too many side plots, pointless interactions, and filler conversations padding out the runtime—The Historian is overlong at just over two hours running time. Though it’s not a bad thing for a movie to be long, it should have enough interesting content to warrant all of that screen time.

The acting is pretty good for the most part and the best performances come from Doleac and Sadler. All of the side characters are clich√© and underwritten—most of them just exist to bring about events and plot points and not as living, breathing people. Doleac wants the audience to take this film seriously, but there is never at any point any gravitas to the proceedings. This is made even worse by the atrociously bad soundtrack choices. Have you ever been in a greeting card store? You know that kind of folky, faux-country, feel-good guitar stuff they play in there?  This entire movie has that as the background music. It doesn’t mesh well with any scene and honestly takes away from the movie’s atmosphere that it’s trying to create.
"You're really boring me right now."
On the plus side, The Historian is a good looking film with excellent camera work and sound design (other than the music). It was filmed at the University of Mississippi so the surroundings are authentic and there is a lot of beautiful scenery surrounding the area. While I have never been a teacher, I could tell that some of the events that transpire seemed a bit “forced” and hokey which is especially egregious in the third act of the movie. It wraps up a little too neatly for my liking which makes it come off even more like a made-for-TV movie with a slightly higher budget. It sounds as if I am being overly harsh on this film, but it had a lot of potential to be an interesting diatribe on the college politics and how students and teachers deal with it. A film that is much more successful in doing this is Tony Kaye’s Detachment (2011) which has a much darker and more realistic approach to this same exact scenario.

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As far as debut films go, The Historian falls smack dab in the middle quality-wise.  It’s not a completely terrible first attempt, but it’s too unfocused and self-indulgent to be effective.  Hopefully, Doleac reigns himself in for his next feature because he does have the ability to craft an interesting story.

-Michelle Kisner