Culture desk

Handsome Devil, Reviewed

Handsome Devil makes a strong first impression. We are greeted by knowing, humorous narration from Ned (Fionn O’Shea), who comments on the story in a style that reminded me of Ron Howard’s narration in Arrested Development.

This is a feature-length sitcom. John Butler’s previous film, The Stag, also had an interest in bringing a sitcom feel to the big screen. But that film was far less successful than Handsome Devil.

The Stag’s Seinfeld-style eating and nitpicking sequences bogged down its opening half hour and put the rest of the film off balance. Handsome Devil is immediately funnier than Butler’s first feature, something that ends up helping and hurting the film.

Between sarcastic voice-over quips, Ned argues with his father (Ardal O’Hanlon) and his stepmother (Amy Huberman) about dropping out of boarding school. Ned’s not looking forward to another year.

Ned’s school, Wood Hill, is a private school based on Butler’s own secondary school. Its faculty and students are obsessed with rugby; despite the school not bringing home a senior cup for many years, past glories loom large in the memory of the staff.

At Wood Hill, the rugby team rule, and cause more-academic students like Ned no end of heartache.

I attended a secondary school not unlike Wood Hill, and many of Butler’s observations rang true for me. I smiled and winced with recognition at a number of scenes.

Don’t let that dissuade you though: even if you’ve no experience of this type of school, its bizarre ceremonies and atmosphere are amusing as works of fiction too.

Ned is an outcast. Gaunt, gangly and with a strange red dye job on his hair, he looks like the keyboard player from a forgotten New Romantic group.

Ned doesn’t play rugby. He decorates his dorm room with artsy photographs and song lyrics and spends much of his time reading or practising the guitar. The rest of the kids are relentless in their bullying of him.

Throughout the film, Ned is bombarded with gay slurs. In a voice-over Ned explains that to his rugby playing contemporaries “gay” means “different”, and anyone who is in any way different is going to suffer an almost constant stream of physical and verbal abuse.

Unsurprisingly, Ned tries to keep himself to himself, and he is not too pleased when he’s forced to share his room with a new student, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a hotshot rugby player who left his last school under mysterious circumstances.

Again, Butler shows his love for classic sitcom premises as Ned erects a Berlin Wall of bookcases and desks across the middle of the dorm room. Jokes are set aside as the boys try to get a sense of one another. This is made more difficult by Conor’s need to fall in with his rugby-playing peers.

Conor is not like the tribal players at Wood Hill. He shows a nasty temper early in the film as he pummels one of his teammates to the sound of Thirteen by Big Star. Galitzine has a great brooding look about him, a vampiric pretty-boy vibe.

Even when he’s beating the tar out of a kid on the rugby pitch, you can see a sadness in his expression. Galitzine is one of the more expressive young actors in the film, and steals the show with O’Shea and Andrew Scott.

As word of Conor’s individuality spreads to Ned, the Berlin Wall comes down piece by piece. The boys  bond over a shared interest in music. But even as friends, they are still wary of one another. There’s a sense of something lurking beneath every smile, an unwillingness to express their emotions openly.

Before the screening John Butler introduced Handsome Devil as a work drawing from his own experience at school. This manifests itself in surprising ways. The film’s soundtrack is largely made up of music from the late 1980s.

Funnily enough, The Smiths song from which the movie gets its title doesn’t appear. However, the film does feature other tracks from bands of that vintage, such as The Housemartins. Presumably, these are the songs that got Butler through some hard times in school.

Andrew Scott, as inspirational teacher Mr Sherry, does a good imitation of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but now and then Butler speaks through this character, in his words and his taste in music.

After seeing the film, I have a good idea of what John Butler would put on a Spotify mix. You will as well.

Scott gives an admirable performance as Mr Sherry, a no-nonsense English teacher who replaces a deceased member of staff. Although the script gives him some cheesy lines here and there, his impassioned and boisterous attitude manages to make even the corniest moments convincing.

I’ve had trouble warming up to Scott over the years. His breakout TV role as Moriarty in Sherlock had him jobbing as villains and arrogant authority types in a couple of big movie roles.

These parts didn’t suit him all that well. In 2014, Pride saw Scott give an impressive performance, and, to this day, he’s done better work in smaller productions.

As well as Scott, there are many other holdovers from The Stag’s cast in Handsome Devil, and for good reason; Butler writes well for these actors, and gets memorable performances out of them.

Amy Huberman doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she excels as Ned’s youthful stepmother. She seems to be closer in age to Ned than his father, and talks to him like one of the Wood Hill bullies.

These brief interactions are among the best in the picture. The material and performances in Handsome Devil are stronger than The Stag, and for me, realise the unreached potential that was visible in Butler’s debut feature.

The scripting and characterisation are a step up from The Stag, and so is the technique. Butler is skillful at giving an impression of looseness within the constraints of the film’s tight running time. I was particularly taken by a couple of sequences where the actors were allowed some freedom, or at least, when Butler gave the impression of improvised material.

In one sequence, Mr Sherry babbles on and on about tea after an awkward encounter with Conor. Later, Moe Dumford as red-blooded rugby coach Pascal talks to no one in particular about soothing the beast within himself. These off-the-cuff moments provide laughs, certainly, but they also make the characters seem all the more human and relatable.

Ned and Conor also have their fair share of memorable moments. Conor’s haunting interaction with his alcoholic father following a standout rugby performance, Ned’s deer-in-headlights performance at a local talent show, and many other sequences stick in my memory.

Although, thinking back on Handsome Devil, something occurs to me.

A lot happens in the film’s 95 minutes: talent shows, fights, essay competitions, championship matches, organising of search parties, making friends, falling out, and making friends again.

Handsome Devil is a busy film and a very funny film, and in its pace and frequency of laughs something gets lost: that male friendship that should be key to a picture like this.

Ned and Conor are friends, yes, but this element of the picture seems pushed to the side at many points in favour of other subplots or developments.

There’s a lot of good in Handsome Devil. Butler succeeds in bringing the speed and consistency of good situation comedy to the big screen.

The film doesn’t shy away from dealing with heavier topics as well, although, as with the relationship between Ned and Conor, some of the message of the film gets lost in the fast pace of the action.

Handsome Devil hits more than it misses. It is a strong sophomore feature for Butler, a launchpad for some great young actors, and a chance for veterans to put in excellent performances.


Luke Maxwell portrait
Luke Maxwell

Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.

 

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