Director: John Butler
Cast: Fionn O'Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott, Moe Dunford, Michael McElhatton, Ruairi O'Connor, Mark Lavery, Jay Duffy, Jamie Hallahan
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 6/2/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 1, 2017
There are at least two characters whose stories are more promising than the main character of Handsome Devil. Our protagonist is Ned (Fionn O'Shea), an outsider at an all-boys boarding school in Ireland. The rest of his classmates are obsessed with rugby, although only a select few are allowed to play on the school's prestigious team. The team has a good chance of winning the championship this year, but Ned doesn't care. He likes music, although his defining characteristic is that he hates rugby. Even more revealing, he hates the sport because everyone else loves it.
Ned is a rebel for the sake of being a rebel, and to be honest, he isn't much of one, either. The movie's more intriguing characters are two men who could be rebels for a good cause, but they have decided—each on his own—that it's more beneficial to avoid confrontation, remain silent, and otherwise keep their heads down. From a storytelling standpoint, it's confusing that writer/director John Butler would focus on the character whose conflicts are self-imposed because of some vague notion of generic rebellion, especially when the lives and experiences of those two other characters are right there for the mining.
The movie's central focus is off-kilter, and that has ramifications for everything else in the movie. Characters are left underdeveloped, because they exist for whatever conflict is necessary at the time. The main character begins to come across as a side player in a more involving story. The movie's major theme seems rather trite compared to the undercurrents about prejudice and self-empowerment, because the lessons Ned learns from his own experience are our entryway into and exit point from this story. Those lessons have little to do with the stories of the other two men, except that Ned becomes an accidental hero for them through a really bad decision on his part.
Upon his father and stepmother leaving for the country for a while, Ned returns to the boarding school for another year to keep him out of trouble. He begins this year convinced that he will find a way to get expelled. Apart from the taunting and teasing from his classmates, things aren't too bad. He has a room to himself, where he can put up posters and listen to music in peace. The now-deceased English teacher never realized he had been plagiarizing essays from the lyrics of obscure songs, so his grades have been decent.
A new student and new English teacher arrive, though, seemingly to put the good parts of Ned's school life to rest. The student is Conor (Nicholas Gallitzine), a talented rugby player who was kicked out of his last school for getting into fights. He ends up assigned to be Ned's roommate. Ned almost immediately puts up a wall of furniture to divide the room, but he soon learns that there's more to his new roommate than what he sees on the surface.
The English teacher is Dan Sherry (Andrew Scott), who has no patience for students who interrupt class. He calls out Ned on the occasion of the first assignment, playing the song from which Ned cribbed his essay while the guy is reading it in front of the class. Dan warns of living life with a "borrowed voice." "If you don't live your life as yourself," he offers, "who will?"
Eventually, we learn that neither Dan nor Conor is following that advice. After a rugby game in the city, Ned follows a distraught Conor to a local bar. He learns an establishment that caters to gay men, and while there, Conor discovers Dan sitting at a table with his boyfriend. On the train ride home, the two men decide that it would be best for both of them if they continue to keep their sexuality a secret. For his part, without Conor knowing what he has learned, Ned decides to stay quiet—for as long as he can, at least.
Ned's story takes on a bit of unearned weight in the aftermath of the discovery, if only because his classmates routinely mock him for what they wrongly assume is his own sexuality. There's more than an undercurrent of homophobia at the school, with its own code (a noise the students have invented to signal that someone or something is "gay") and assumptions. As tensions progress, the rugby coach (played by Moe Dunford) becomes the loudest voice of that prejudice, even though he still uses coded language in a poor attempt to hide it.
Ned begins to resent those taunts, because he knows they're not true and, now, also knows that there's a more fitting target. His thinking is that, if different is seen as bad and Conor is different but perceived as good, then surely his classmates should stop believing that Ned is bad for being different.
This becomes the central conflict—whether Ned should out his friend to save himself. It's no longer his story, though, or at least, his story is no longer the most important one here. Meanwhile, Conor and Dan actually have to deal their secret, the fear of it coming out, and the ramifications of being the targets of prejudice. That's the story of real significance in Handsome Devil, but the movie only offers distanced glimpses into it.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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