D: John Butler / 95m
Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Michael McElhatton, Moe Dunford, Ruairi O’Connor, Jay Duffy, Ardal O’Hanlon, Amy Huberman, Stephen Hogan
Ned (O”Shea) is returning to boarding school for another year of being the outsider, the one pupil in the entire school for whom rugby – which the school is obsessed by – doesn’t mean anything. Ned prefers reading and music, but this has earned him the enmity of some of the other pupils, including Weasel (O”Connor), who is on the current team. However, there is good news: this year he has a room to himself. But this good fortune doesn’t last long. A new pupil called Connor (Galitzine), is assigned to Ned’s room. First impressions don’t help and the pair initially don’t get along. An incident in their English class allows for the barriers they’ve erected (literally and figuratively) to be broken down, and soon they share a genuine friendship. A joint love of music sees them cajoled by their English teacher, Mr Sherry (Scott), into taking part in a local talent show. But Connor has also made the school rugby team and is proving to be their star player. But Connor has a secret, one that Ned discovers by accident, and one that leads to their friendship becoming strained, as well as forcing Connor to make a difficult choice if he wants to remain at the school.
Told in the form of an extended flashback as Ned recounts the events of the previous months, Handsome Devil is another very likeable, very enjoyable movie that serves as a reminder that when it comes to coming-of-age tales, Ireland has assembled a pretty good track record in recent years. Irish movie makers seem to know instinctively how to balance comedy and drama in their movies, and John Butler’s follow up to The Stag (2013) is no exception. And more importantly, one isn’t allowed to overshadow the other. It’s sometimes a precarious balancing act, but here the dramatics surrounding Connor’s secret (an obvious one but treated with sympathy and understanding by Butler’s screenplay) are played out with a credibility lacking in many other movies, and thanks to a deftly handled performance by Galitzine. Connor’s friendship with Ned is another aspect that’s handled well, growing organically out of their shared appreciation for music. Butler gives both characters the chance to grow as the movie progresses, and they both emerge from their self-imposed shells more confident and more determined not to return to them.
There’s plenty of humour to be had as well, and the movie makes several salient points about the highs and lows to be experienced in a boarding school environment. There’s also a devil and angel scenario whereby Connor’s “soul” is the concern of both Mr Sherry and his rugby coach, Mr O’Keeffe (Dunmore). This leads to a few awkward scenes that don’t feel as well developed as in other areas, and despite good performances from both actors, these scenes always feel a little leaden in comparison. In truth, the main storyline isn’t anything new, but it’s the way in which Butler handles it that makes it so enjoyable. There’s an impish yet sincere quality to the material that is engaging, and within the world he’s created, much is recognisable in terms of the characters and their troubles. Butler is utilising universal elements to tell his story, and it’s this universality that makes it look and sound so good, even if sometimes, his message is a little too simplistic (the movie ends on a moment of fantasy wish fulfillment that will either make you groan or cheer).Your world won’t be changed – probably – by seeing this movie, but you will enjoy spending time with it.
Rating: 8/10 – bright and entertaining, and with a welcome degree of poignancy, Handsome Devil is a delightful movie full of terrific performances topped off by Butler’s assured direction, and a number of first-rate song choices on the soundtrack; definitely a feelgood movie, then, and one that doesn’t strain to be something it’s not or strive to make more of its story than is completely necessary.