Ian Glen plays a bad brother
"I don't think comedy's really my thing," says Irish director Aisling Walsh, in what must be the understatement of the year. Walsh cut her teeth on gritty TV dramas like Trial & Retribution and the Magdalen Laundries, and her latest film, Song For A Raggy Boy, is another foray into the darkness, a harrowing tale of religious repression in Ireland.
The film is set in 1939 and tells the story of William Franklin (Aidan Quinn), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who returns to Ireland to take up a teaching job at St Jude's reformatory. Franklin is the only lay teacher at the school; worse, he's a romantic and an idealist and we know from the outset that he's not going to fit in. He quickly makes an enemy of the sadistic Brother John (Iain Glen), the school prefect, and this struggle of good versus evil is what drives the film. Franklin believes in the redemptive power of poetry and learning and John, the Bible-quoting bully, just wants to crack heads at the first sign of indiscipline.
The violence is at times shocking - Brother John foams at the mouth as he beats one of the boys into unconsciousness - but the film's depiction of sexual abuse is even more disturbing, particularly the scene in which a thirteen-year-old boy is raped by one of the brothers.
For Walsh, it was a hard sell. "Initially, when the script was written, nobody wanted to touch it," she recalls. "People would read it and say they really liked it but they'd ask if this really happened and say they weren't sure if they could put their money into it."
Walsh adapted the script from the novel by Patrick Galvin and spent more than three years trying to raise enough money to get the project off the ground. Even with Quinn on board it still took another three years before filming started, with the £2.7 million budget eventually coming from a consortium of backers in Ireland, the UK, Denmark and Spain.
"At the time, nearly seven years ago now, the story would have been quite shocking," Walsh admits. "It was before The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan's 2002 film which tackled similar themes) and in Ireland the stories of abuse hadn't really come out yet from the survivors and victims of those institutions. We didn't know a great deal about it at the time."
The reformatory school system was abolished in the late 1970s but the stories of institutionalised abuse are only now coming to the surface.
"Survivors of the schools have just started to come forward and tell their stories - stories of the cruellest punishment, abuse and neglect," says Walsh. "These places were a constant threat during my childhood when I misbehaved. The film will help tell the story of some of the lost souls who went through the system."
As if the subject matter wasn't difficult enough, Walsh also took a gamble when it came to casting two of the key roles - star pupil Liam Mercier (John Travers) and rape victim Patrick Delaney (Chris Newman). Fifteen-year-old Newman has done some work on Irish TV, but thirteen-year-old Travers had not acted before.
"From the beginning I told the producers that Mercier and Delaney were the two most important parts to cast, because if you get that wrong the audience just won't go with it," Walsh says. After unsuccessful auditions in Dublin, Walsh hit on the novel idea of looking for "tougher kids" in local boxing clubs, and this is where she eventually spotted Travers and many of the other boys.
The gamble pays off and Travers is particularly convincing as Mercier, the troubled but gifted student who gets caught up in the power struggle between Franklin and Brother John.
There's much more to admire about Raggy Boy. Quinn, so often second fiddle to bigger names - Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, for heaven's sake - has never been better. Franklin is damaged goods, a decent man haunted by a foreign war and now struggling against a corrupt system at home. In some ways, he's as vulnerable as Mercier and Delaney and all the other boys at St. Jude's, but he also has an inner strength, and Quinn nails him perfectly.
Raggy Boy will probably be compared to Dead Poets Society - inspirational teacher, troubled pupils, valuable life lessons, etc., etc. - but Walsh never allows it to get too sentimental. What we do get, minus Robin Williams and the big dollop of slush, is a grim but ultimately uplifting film.