‘The love that dare not speak its name,’ to quote Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase about homosexuality, has become very vocal in recent times. So much so that we’re almost in danger of replacing homophobia with heterophobia. I say this because most of the ‘nice’ people in this film from writer/director John Butler are gay, or suspected of being so, and most of the nasty ones are ‘straight.’
As a 16-year-old I was plucked from a school in Connacht and plonked into a rugby college when my father retired and we moved to Dublin. Having little or no interest in rugby, which was almost like a second religion to the place, meant the strain of trying to mix in with the other lads in my class (many of whom had been there almost from the cradle) was multiplied a hundredfold.
Ned (Fionn O’Shea) has similar adjustment problems here in the posh college he attends in the 1980s. Added to them is the suspicion among his classmates that he’s gay. He isn’t but it still results in his ostracisation from ‘the pack.’ It also causes a kind of ‘Berlin Wall’ to be erected in the space between his bed and that of his rugby-playing room-mate Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) – to ‘protect’ Conor from possible advances from him in the night.
The pair of them bond through a common interest in music and this creates problems for a nasty rugby coach. (He feels Conor’s ‘contamination’ by Ned will detract from his prowess on the field of play).
Conor had to leave his old school because he was always getting into fights. But what was the cause of such fights? Is there a question mark over Conor’s sexuality too?
When a telling revelation about this comes about , through a megaphone doubling as the ‘conch’ of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – a text referenced by Ned’s friendly English teacher Mr Sherry (Andrew Scott) – the film reaches its climax.
Sherry berates Ned in an early scene for plagiarism but the film itself is guilty of this fault too, especially in the fairytale finale culled from almost every sports film you’ve ever seen. And indeed in the message Ned has on his guitar – ‘This machine kills fascists’ – which is Woody Guthrie’s copyright.
That’s not to say Handsome Devil isn’t a well-made film. It makes some important points about tolerance and bullying and boasts solid performances all round.
The critics have been going into ecstacies about it and I’m sure it will be regarded by many as the Irish film of the year.
I won’t grudge it whatever kudos it earns. It has a pleasant frivolity that underscores its didactic edge.
It’s just a pity the treatment of its theme wasn’t more nuanced.
Having said that, it adeptly evokes the awkwardness of adolescence for a misfit in a repressive environment. To that extent it brought the past right back to me.