Movie review: Handsome Devil - 'One hell of an achievement'
4* - John Butler's coming-of-age drama is a deft and witty delight
Writer/director John Butler learnt his trade doing TV shows like Your Bad Self before making a creditable feature debut a few years back with The Stag. But that film was a genre picture, a buddy farce with modest ambitions, and Handsome Devil constitutes a big step forward from that.
It's a skilfully pitched drama that combines serious themes like sexuality and emerging teenage identity with a lively comic tone. And what's most impressive is how well made and glossy it looks on a budget of just ¤1m.
Produced by the ever-resourceful Treasure Entertainment, Handsome Devil is a funny and touching coming-of-age story set at a rugby-mad Irish boarding school. A withdrawn 16-year-old called Ned (Fionn O'Shea) does his best to persuade his widowed father (Ardal O'Hanlon) and frosty stepmother (Amy Huberman) that boarding school is not the place for him, but his pleas fall on deaf ears and he's sent back for another term of misery.
Actually, Ned's a bit of a drama queen: his supposed enemies aren't that unpleasant and even the most unenlightened teachers are buffoons rather than monsters. But Ned is an outcast alright, with musical tastes that win him few friends and a flair for sarcasm that tends to inflame pugilistic adversaries.
Things get worse when he's roomed with a new boy called Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a winsome rugby star Ned immediately assumes is an enemy. But he and Conor have more in common than either might have thought.
Because although Conor's sporting prowess has the school's bluff rugby coach Pascal (Moe Dunford) foaming at the mouth with excitement, he left his last school under a cloud and seems inexplicably tetchy and defensive. Why this is will become evident as the two reluctant roommates declare a truce and become tentative friends.
Butler's film is set neither in the present nor the past, for while the fashion and vernacular seem contemporary, the musical references mainly hark back to the 1980s (the title is inspired by a Smiths song).
There's a strong autobiographical element: Butler attended Blackrock College and clearly understands the east Leinster school's rugby culture inside out. But his film feels less like an earnest 'Portrait of the Artist' endeavour and more like one of those American college dramas that mix sport, sex and the teenage state to telling effect.
A strong supporting cast includes Michael McElhatton as the school's well-meaning but clueless headmaster, Walter Curly, and Andrew Scott as Dan Sherry - the kind of wildly inspiring English teacher we all wish we'd had. He notices Ned's flair for writing but instead of making him a pet, berates him for his laziness and lack of ambition, and challenges him to prove he's more than just a pretentious opt-out.
Dan is less idealised and perfect than Robin Williams' Dead Poets Society character Mr Keating, and has his own Achilles' heel he'll have to publicly confront, while Ned will be forced to realise he is an outcast by choice.
Nicely photographed and cleverly paced, Handsome Devil mixes comedy and emotion deftly, and reaches a memorable climax during a floodlit rugby match. The school has a rare chance to win the cup, but when star player Conor goes missing after an altercation with the coach, it's up to Ned to persuade him to play.
Because of its dynamic and uncompromising physicality, rugby has always been a very hard sport to fake, as anyone who endured the awful World Cup Final in Clint Eastwood's Invictus will appreciate. With an nth of the budget, Butler does far better: one Brian O'Driscoll helped with the playing sequences and the results are impressive.
Equally impressive is the way the film sensitively explores the minefield of sexual identity, and seems to reject the entire notion of labelling. But Handsome Devil is also very funny, a wise and witty tonic.
Handsome Devil (15A, 95mins) 4 Stars
Films coming soon...
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan); The Promise (Oscar Issac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, Rade Serbedzija); Lady Macbeth (Florence Pugh, Christopher Fairbank).