Song For A Raggy Boy

Song For A Raggy Boy


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

In the old days, you could get away with murder in English boarding schools. Children were scared to sneak. Relations with parents were polite, rather than close. There existed an unspoken pact between teachers and fathers - mothers seldom had a voice. Sex did not exist as a forum of debate outside the farmyard and the tradition of silence encouraged bullying.

Imagine, therefore, what it must have been like in reform schools, where young offenders were sent as a punishment. No one bothered the authorities, nor investigated their methods. It was a question of out of sight, out of mind.

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Song For A Raggy Boy is based on Patrick Galvin's autobiographical account of experiences in such a place in Ireland in 1939 and will be compared, no doubt, with Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters as another example of the Catholic Church's abuse of power. Although the school is run by priests, what happened there could well have occured in a secular establishment.

By using Mr Franklin (Aidan Quinn) as the central figure in the story, it takes the pressure off the boys and allows the audience to view this enclosed world through his eyes. He is the only teacher not of the cloth, which means his loyalties are to truth, rather than God. He fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War and carries deep emotional scars. His belief in poetry as a force for change may appear sentimental today, but fits exactly into the mood of the moment, especially in Ireland.

The boys are naturally suspicious of authority. Some are being abused sexually by a younger priest, while others are subjected to fierce beatings from Brother John (Iain Glen), the priest in charge of discipline. They view their time at St Judes as a sentence to be endured and find Franklin's rough sympathy unnerving, as if an enemy might still be a friend. The struggle between Brother John and Franklin is fought for the hearts and minds of these damaged children in an environment of institutionalised repression.

What might have been Dead Poets Society revisited is closer to the untarnished realism of Polish cinema. The use of washed out colour gives a monochome effect and the superimposed images of Franklin's memories of Spain and the woman he loved is beautifully handled. Glen conveys hatred with frightening physicality and Quinn comes back to Ireland after a less than strenuous performance as Pierce Brosnan's lawyer in Evelyn with renewned vigour. The boys, needless to say, are remarkable.

Aisling Walsh's film is a cry from the wilderness, which in the past would have fallen on deaf ears. Established institutions, whether Irish or Catholic, cannot rely on the compliance of those who suffered.

"The flood gates have been opened," Brother John announces. "It is our duty to close them."

It is the civil right of every citizen of the world to disregard him.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2003
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Song For A Raggy Boy packshot
Autobiographical account of life as a boy offender in an Irish Catholic reform school.
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Read more Song For A Raggy Boy reviews:

Gary Duncan ***1/2
Jennie Kermode ***

Director: Aisling Walsh

Writer: Patrick Galvin, Kevin Byron Murphy, Aisling Walsh

Starring: Aidan Quinn, Iain Glen, Marc Warren, Dudley Sutton, Claus Bue, Alan Devlin, Stuart Graham, John Travers, Chris Newman, Simone Bendix

Year: 2003

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Ireland


EIFF 2003

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