Smart people (in this case, academics) do stupid things in The Historian, and since first-time writer/director Miles Doleac has the tendency to spell things out, one professor actually asks another how anyone so smart can be so stupid. Likewise, an embittered Valerian Hadley (William Sadler) feels compelled to tell Ben Rhodes (Doleac) that he’ll end up just like him, even though it’s obvious that the resentful department head is the ghost of tenured future for the upstart, who arrives at a new university with a successful book, a shattered marriage, and an exalted view of academic rigor.
An assistant professor of classics at the University of Southern Mississippi (where he shot The Historian), Doleac captures the rhythms of academic life in a leisurely two hours. As a performer, he’s best at the lectern and interacting with students who share his love of ancient Rome. But as a filmmaker, Doleac can’t reconcile all his story lines. A meticulous Val tries to maintain control as Alzheimer’s causes his once imposing father (John Cullum) to slip in and out of time and lucidity. These are extraordinary scenes with remarkable actors – and they seem to belong in another movie.
Hadley views the department’s rising star, grad student Anna Densmore (Jillian Taylor), as his prized possession. (In her first film, Taylor gives perkiness a good name.) Her relationship with Ben leads to a confrontation that takes The Historian from smart comedy of manners to shaky melodrama. Rhodes asserts that attaining a postgraduate degree involves a sacrifice beyond time, effort, and crushing debt, but the price she pays is a crime.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on November 28, 2014
First published in The Village Voice, 2014.