Song For A Raggy Boy

Song For A Raggy Boy


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In recent years there has been a slew of films dealing with oppressive school experiences, from The Magdalene Sisters to Bad Education. Song For A Raggy Boy is brutal, gut-wrenching stuff, but it struggles to stand out amongst them, beset as it is by further clichés. It may be based on a true story, but, like its traumatised characters, has difficulty finding its own voice. Nevertheless, it has a splendid cast and there's much here that's worth watching.

The story is set in Ireland on the eve of the Second World War. Teacher William Franklin, himself a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, arrives at his new post in a tough Catholic reform school and sets about trying to inspire a group of boys who can scarcely read and write.

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A clever script provides plenty of humour as the boys first endeavour to avoid learning and then gradually embrace it for their own reasons, but the heavy-handed use of fragments of poetry suggests that the writers lacked confidence in their own eloquence. We've seen all this before, of course, and this film has neither the energy of Dead Poets Society nor the subtle charm of Les Choristes.

In its favour, it has a solid performance from Aidan Quinn as Franklin, finally showing what he's capable of when given serious material. It's quite a challenge, matched as he is against the redoubtable Iain Glen, who manages in his turn to bring an edge of humanity to the violent priest desperately trying to force his will onto pupils and staff alike. Alongside these two, young John Travers is superb as Mercier, the bright and increasingly confident boy who finds himself at the centre of a gathering storm.

Song For A Raggy Boy endeavours to distinguish itself by drawing on parallels with the wars surrounding its story and with the notion of political resistance. Unfortunately, it gives the impression that much of this context has been pared down and edited out. Many related issues are underexplored; we know that many of the boys from the school will go off to their deaths in the war, fighting on one side or another, and the teachers must have known that too, yet we are never made privy to the feelings it must have aroused in them. Likewise, the poverty of their surroundings is evinced only through background tales and illustrations of austerity within the school itself, with insufficient examination of the effect on the boys of what must have seemed like a hopeless future.

The violence in the film is less impressive when considered in this context, though many viewers will find it disturbing. Despite its ugliness, it's also very much underplayed, considerably less bloody than the real thing and sometimes elegantly filmed in a way which diminishes its impact. Given that one of the film's underlying concerns is with people turning away from violence committed against others, this is rather disconcerting.

Bleak as it is, and with its moments of happiness crudely stitched in, the weakest parts of the film, Song For A Raggy Boy nevertheless has genuinely heartwarming moments, mostly in the banter between its young actors. Their unpolished performances help to make the rest believable and ensure that the viewer does care what happens to them. As such, this has got what it takes to keep one watching, if not to ensure that it's remembered afterwards.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2006
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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:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****
Gary Duncan ***1/2

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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