Eye For Film >> Movies >> Song For A Raggy Boy (2003) Film Review
I don't know about you, but the words "uplifting film about an inspirational teacher" are usually enough to make me reach for the nearest sick bucket. The syrupy slush of Dead Poets Society probably started it and the likes of Mona Lisa Smile and Dangerous Minds have done little to make me change my opinion about this most disturbing of sub-genres.
I had every intention of not liking Song For A Raggy Boy. It's uplifting. It's about an inspirational teacher. I wanted to hate it. But I needn't have worried, because this little film is a gem from start to finish.
We start with a grainy flashback. Civil War Spain, 1939. We're in a dank basement: a torture chamber. A prisoner is pulled to one side and shot through the head. William Franklin (Aidan Quinn) watches, powerless, as his friend is murdered. Cut to Ireland and Franklin has returned home to take a teaching job in a tough Catholic reformatory. He is a layman, but worse than that he's an idealist and a romantic, and we know from the off that he's not going to fit in.
Much of the story unfolds in the stark surroundings of the monastery school. It is a bleak place, a grey prison every bit as depressing as Franklin's Spanish torture chamber. The boys are given numbers instead of names and are forced to scrub the yard on their hands and knees under the watchful eye of the sadistic Brother John (Iain Glenn), who is strictly "old school" when it comes to discipline, a bully who'd rather hand out a savage beating than detention. One young boy is ceremoniously flogged for the "crime" of talking to his brother on Christmas morning.
The other priests turn a blind eye, some out of fear, others because they are guilty of even more serious crimes themselves. Brother Mac (Marc Warren) is a paedophile, with a particular liking for 13-year-old Delaney (Chris Newman). Despite his better judgement, the abused victim confides to one of the Fathers during confession. The Father berates him and tells him no one must find out about it - including, you presume, the authorities. When word gets back to Mac, he forces Delaney to strip and stand under a freezing shower.
Raggy Boy is based on a true story and never allows itself to conform to Hollywood's twee "Oirishness". Thankfully, we're spared sweeping shots of rolling green hills and the sight of canny, salt-of-the-earth "characters," downing Guinness in the local pub.
Quinn is excellent, as the haunted Franklin. So often the reliable support act, it's good to see him centre stage, holding a film together. His scenes with Glen are particularly good. Franklin believes in the redemptive power of poetry and learning. Brother John just wants to crack heads.
The Spanish flashbacks are used sparingly, but with great effect; we get a glimpse of what happened to Franklin, but never the full story. We know he was married and his wife was killed, and we know there was a lot of suffering - you can see it in his eyes - but it's never overstated.
Occasionally, the Dead Poets alarm bells go off, when it looks like we're heading for a big dollop of slush. Mercier (John Travers), Franklin's star pupil, discovers a faded photograph of Franklin and his wife.
"Do you think I'll ever fall in love, sir?" Mercier asks, and you wish he hadn't.
Later, my heart sank when Franklin packs his bag, not because he's about to leave, but because he changes his mind when Delaney starts reciting poetry to him from across the yard. It's mawkish and at odds with the rest of this perfectly judged film.Reviewed on: 26 Mar 2004
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