John Butler moves on from his breakout comedy The Stag with a tale that is more personal and more nuanced with Handsome Devil. The film has travelled well following its premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and now returns home to play nationwide. How will it go down with the locals?
Handsome Devil is the story of two young men, the outcast Ned and the sporting superstar Conor, and their respective and intertwined struggles to find their path and identity. aiding them, or sabotaging them, on their quests are teachers, fellow students, and parents, each with their own agendas, plots, and schemes aimed at moving them down one path or another.
Part of Handsome Devil is the struggle with sexuality identity, and while that is a core theme it is in the film, just as in life, part of the bigger story of self-discovery. Director John Butler taps into his own life experiences, but there are moments and threads that will resonate with all who have been bullied or found themselves away what passes for “normality”. Which is pretty much everyone. Boarding school and the sport of rugby are the vessels for this story, but audience members need not be familiar with either to find something identifiable in this tale. That is a testament to Butler the writer, although it is Butler the director who finds the right ingredients to bring this story to such satisfactory life.
Relationship comedies live and die on the strength and believability of the relationships between the characters. It is here that Handsome Devil shines. Ned is a misfit, victim of choice and circumstance, and O’Shea gives him that necessary self-satisfaction yet fragility. He is ably assisted by British actor Nick Galtizine, who manages to pull off a convincing Irish accent, and is perfect in the role of the gifted but insecure Conor. The manner in which their dynamic unfolds is central to the film, and provides a compelling and heartfelt throughline. Similarly, Andrew Scott’s Dan Sherry and Moe Dunford’s Pascal O’Keeffe work well as a pair, diametrically opposed but both victims of their own personal shortcomings and attempting to find purpose through their charges. As the intellectual confident Scott is allowed to show some of his familiar bombast, but it is in the quieter one-on-one moments that he displays his brilliance as an actor. There’s a weakness at the core of Mr. Sherry that he expertly conveys. Dunford too shows why he’s regarded by many as a rising star. Pascal could easily be a one-dimensional villain, but he Dunford finds the heart of the character which means that his redemption is savoured. Elsewhere there are notable turns from Ruairi O’Connor as Ned’s tormentor-in-chief Weasel, Michael McElhatton as the unyielding and clueless Principal Walter Curry, as well as from Conor’s teammates Wallace (Mark Lavery), Victor (Jay Duffy), and Spainer (Jamie Hallahan), who each in their own small way is given a moment to shine.
Handsome Devil benefits greatly from a couple of key production choices. Firstly, the decisions to use 1980’s, nostalgic, music, to use a location like Castleknock college, and to avoid the use of any modern gadgets or electronics, give it a timeless feel. This feel is aided greatly by the yellow and blue colour palette used throughout, and the use of fades and wipes to split screens and change scenes. The other key choice was to use extras familiar with the sport of rugby to play the matches and to utilise Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll as a consultant to add an air of authenticity to the games. Cathal Watters again shows the depth of his talent as cinematographer with some excellent establishing shots, kinetic camera moves during the rugby scenes, and some excellent framing of the key dialogue scenes. That being said, the film does suffer from some scenes being placed in middle distances when a closer camera would have given more weight. It may have been a constraint of the budget that meant a lack of coverage, and it is not to take away from the superb work of editor John O’Connor. Special mention must go to Louise Kiely for casting an assemble that works so well together.
All in all Handsome Devil is a big, warm hug of a film. One that has strong morals, great characters, superb performances, and manages to be both moving and hilarious. John Butler should be applauded for telling a story that is both personal and universal in such an assured and astute manner. If there’s a better Irish film this year then we will have been truly blessed.