In Handsome Devil, the latest by John Butler (director of 2013’s The Stag), Fionn O’Shea plays Ned, an outsider at an all-boy Irish private boarding school where rugby is more important than education. His dyed red-hair, his disdain for anything sports related and his ambiguous sexuality make him a frequent target of bullying. Returning after a summer holiday, he is shocked to learn he has been assigned to share a room with Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) – a new, rugby all-star who is a closeted homosexual. Helped along by their English teacher Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott) – who also is harbouring a secret – the two form a bond that may challenge the troubling, pre-conceived notions of normalcy in their school.
Handsome Devil is infectiously charming for two main reasons. Firstly, the script by Butler is hard to resist – partly because its heart is in the right place but also because it’s extremely funny. Anyone who is even slightly artistic will empathise with Ned as he is harassed for the most minor things such as having a poster of Suede’s debut album art-work hanging in his room (which features two men kissing). Plus, he possesses an acerbic wit as he points out all the ludicrous things which occur at his boarding school e.g. the strange noise bullies make to convey that someone is gay or the rugby coach, Pascal (Moe Dunford), who’s so obsessed with the sport that his wife left him.
Secondly, the performances are universally winning. O’Shea carries the movie with his charismatic narration and swagger while Galitzine conveys the inner-turmoil of his character effectively. However, the real stand-out of the picture is Andrew Scott who is so enjoyable to watch. Mr. Sherry begins the movie delivering these intelligent but sarcastic-laced lessons to his class (one off-hand comment about Animal Farm is particularly funny). However, as the drama continues and his life becomes entangled with that of Ned and Conor, he softens – revealing his wounds – but never loosing that humour that made him so likeable.
Scott’s character perhaps would not work as well if it wasn’t for the character of Pascal, a man who stands for literally everything Mr. Sherry does not, played terrifically by Dunford. The rugby coach is the embodiment of the type of prejudice which forces people that are different to stay in the shadows, whereas Mr. Sherry is constantly urging Conor and Ned to be heard, advice he struggles to follow himself. Dunford’s character is very broad delivering lines like: “For sport you have to have an empty mind. Absolutely nothing in there at all”. Yet, the Patrick’s Day actor manages at moments to imbue Pascal with some layers, an example being the moment where he states hilariously and tragically: “We’re all going through shit but you deal with it. You deal with it by standing in a field and blowing on a whistle”.
Handsome Devil is similar in tone and structure to Sing Street. The two are films where the warmth and charisma of their first two acts are so palpable that when in the third act things become overly sentimental and unbelievable, one doesn’t really mind. I can see Butler’s effort achieving a similar success to Sing Street. It’s feel-good fun and its messages – about how bullying can lead to the bullied developing damaging patterns and that it’s better to find one’s voice and be loud – resonate. Stephen Porzio
Director: John Butler