Tribes and tribu­la­tions

John But­ler’s fol­low-up to ‘The Stag’ is more con­fi­dent, more sin­cere and surer in its phi­los­o­phy, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - | MUSIC - TARA BRADY

Moe Dun­ford and Ni­cholas Gal­itzine in Hand­some Devil

HAND­SOME DEVIL Di­rected by John But­ler. Star­ring Fionn O’Shea, Ni­cholas Gal­itzine, Moe Dun­ford, Andrew Scott, Michael McEl­hat­ton, Ruairi O’Con­nor, Amy Hu­ber­man. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 94 min A ten­dril of nar­ra­tive tis­sue ac­ci­den­tally binds John But­ler’s lovely sec­ond fea­ture to one of last year’s most ad­mired Ir­ish films. In John Car­ney’s Sing Street, young Cosmo, whose fam­ily are fi­nan­cially em­bar­rassed, watches his pals go off to a posh school while he must strug­gle at a rougher es­tab­lish­ment run by nasty head­mas­ter Don Wy­cher­ley. Here Michael McEl­hat­ton plays a more ac­com­mo­dat­ing prin­ci­pal at just the sort of rugby-ob­sessed school Cosmo missed out on. Some­body needs to tie th­ese al­ter­na­tive re­al­i­ties to­gether in a post­mod­ern novel.

Any­way, Hand­some Devil con­sti­tutes a marked ad­vance on But­ler’s ear­lier fea­ture The Stag. It is po­si­tioned in sim­i­lar main­stream ter­ri­tory – and is set among an all-male en­vi­ron­ment – but the film feels more con­fi­dent, more sin­cere and surer in its phi­los­o­phy. Fionn O’Shea is ter­rific as Ned, a sen­si­tive mu­sic fan who feels os­tracised at a school where rug­ger is the au­tho­rised re­li­gion.

He has a friend in Dan (Andrew Scott), the cul­tured English teacher, and an en­emy in the boor­ish games mas­ter Pascal (Moe Dun­ford). Nei­ther is as cliched as that ad­jec­ti­val de­scrip­tion sug­gests. No refugee from Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety, Pascal has a pompous, the­atri­cal side that gives Scott the op­por­tu­nity to boom as only he can. Dun­ford’s un­stop­pable ami­a­bil­ity makes an in­sen­si­tive duf­fer, rather than a sadis­tic mon­ster, of the hearty Pascal. McEl­hat­ton’s head­mas­ter strives to ac­com­mo­date all war­ring ele­ments.

The con­flict be­tween tribes is ex­em­pli­fied – and com­pli­cat- ed – when Fionn gets a new room­mate in the form of hand­some, charis­matic Conor (Ni­cholas Gal­itzine). He is a tal­ented rugby player and, thus, surely be­longs on the other side of the wall Fionn has built in his room. Make no as­sump­tions. The other boys, en­raged by Fionn’s artis­tic lean­ings, tease him for as­sumed ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, but we soon sus­pect that it is the sporty Conor who may be gay. Why should he not be?

The syn­op­sis sug­gests flavours of the hor­ri­ble pub­lic school in If… or the dif­fer­ently nasty hi­er­ar­chies in US high-school movies such as Heathers. (Conor is prime “star quar­ter­back” ma­te­rial.) But Hand­some Devil is kinder to its set­ting. But­ler, who at­tended Black­rock Col­lege, amus­ingly ref­er­ences the way taunts get handed down through gen­er­a­tions and, like ev­ery­day apho­risms, even­tu­ally lose their point of ref­er­ence. None of the boys can ex­plain why they make a sort of nasal “Ewww” noise when bul­ly­ing sup­pos­edly gay col­leagues.

For all that, the school is not a place of end­less tor­ture. But­ler al­lows a de­gree of de­cency to all his clash­ing per­son­al­i­ties. Ned is ini­tially op­pressed by the rugby cul­ture, but the film ends up by ask­ing us to get be­hind the team’s ef­forts to win some cup or other. Brian O’Driscoll’s work as oval ball con­sul­tant helps de­liver on-field ac­tion that won over even this rug­by­pho­bic critic.

None of this hu­man­is­tic gen­eros­ity would mat­ter if the cen­tral re­la­tion­ship re­fused to spark. Hap­pily, O’Shea and Gal­itzine are both ter­rific in the twin lead roles. The former gets the quiet ex­as­per­a­tion of the dreamer who can’t find any­one to share his in­ter­ests. Gal­itzine, a hand­some English­man adopt­ing a spot-on Ir­ish ac­cent, leans to­wards barely sup­pressed frus­tra­tion.

Set in a de­lib­er­ately un­cer­tain pe­riod Hand­some Devil is proudly tra­di­tional in its sto­ry­telling. Set­backs come at just the right mo­ments . Char­ac­ters go through nar­ra­tive arcs that rarely trou­ble fleshy hu­man be­ings. None of this is easy to achieve. But­ler has proved him­self adept at the com­plex me­chan­ics of the re­demp­tive com­edy. There is surely some clos­ing rugby anal­ogy that would ac­cu­rately con­vey the bright­ness of his fu­ture. Some­one else will have to sup­ply it. THE HAP­PI­EST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI Di­rected by Juho Ku­os­ma­nen. Star­ring Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joanna Haartti, Esko Bar­quero. Club, lim­ited re­lease, 98mins De Niro’s Jake La Motta may be an an­i­mal­is­tic ex­cep­tion, but mostly, we can de­pend on the moviev­erse’s box­ers to be big old soft­ies. En­ter Olli Mäki, the sub­ject of this hugely like­able box­ing un­der­dog movie, and a screen boxer so snug­gly-wug­gly, he makes kindly Rocky Bal­boa seem like a hard-man.

Mäki, an ob­scure Fin­nish sport­ing hero, made his­tory – al­beit as a foot­note – as a fighter who had a shot at the 1962 Feath­er­weight Ti­tle. Juho Ku­os­ma­nen’s de­but fea­ture – the win­ner of Un Cer­tain Re­gard at Cannes last year – chron­i­cles Olli’s prepa­ra­tions for the bout.

It is both for­tu­nate and un­for­tu­nate that the pugilist’s big break co­in­cides with fall­ing in love with Raija (Oona Airola). The blos­som­ing ro­mance is dis­tract­ing but it’s the least of Olli’s prob­lems. The boxer has just two weeks to drop from lightweight down to feath­er­weight. He is, more­over, en­tirely ill-suited to his new overnight celebrity, yet his man­ager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) in­sists on hir­ing a doc­u­men­tary crew, un­com­fort­able pub­lic­ity shots and din­ners with spon­sors.

Shot (by DOP J-P Passi), with a curt­sey to the nou­velle vague, in free-flow­ing, hand­held mono­chrome on 16mm, The Hap­pi­est Day in the Life of Olli Mäki bobs and weaves through a box­ing un­der­dog nar­ra­tive reimag­ined as a warm, ro­man­tic drama. The un­der­stated, wry script, co-writ­ten by the di­rec­tor and Mikko Myl­ly­lahti, goes for a win on points rather than a grand, dra­matic knock­out.

But its Jarkko Lahti’s cen­tral per­for­mance – a turn that’s as big-hearted as Olli him­self – that steals the show. Watch out for cameos from the real Olli and Raija.

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