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