There has been a long tradition of films about boys’ boarding schools, some comedies about difficulties, some dramas about misfits, rebels, some clashes between students and teachers, some physical violence, sexual abuse.
This one, set in Ireland and filmed in an actual Rugby school, starts out fairly conventionally. A young student, Ned (Fionn O’Shea) gives his voice-over version of his father after his mother’s death, marrying his young stepmother, their living in Dubai, his resentment at having to go to boarding school and his giving serious consideration to being expelled. As soon as he arrives, he is the subject of sneers and bullying. But, he has a room to himself where he can be quiet, play his favourite (older) music, take refuge from the other students.
He soon tells us that the preoccupation of staff and students is Rugby, past tradition of winning (though not lately) and the preoccupation with the sport, bolstered by the enthusiasm of the Rugby coach, Paschal (Moe Dunford). The principal shares the preoccupation and has quite an open attitude toward some of the teachers and students – though he wishes that they were devoted to Rugby.
Ned’s peace is disturbed when a troubled new student, expelled for fighting from his previous school, Connor (Nicholas Galitzine) is to share his room. He has a reputation as a Rugby champion – and has scenes of opportunity, training and play, to demonstrate this fully. Some of the team members are bullies and, insinuating that Ned is gay because of a film poster on his wall, purge Connor to be cautious. When Ned finds him doing push-ups, he puts up a barrier between the two beds, his own Berlin Wall, and keeps aloof.
In the meantime there is a new English teacher, Mr Sherry, a very interesting and provocative performance from Andrew Scott (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Moriarty). He wants students to think for themselves, exercises a discipline, is not particularly interested in Rugby, but encourages Ned and Connor who have found some bond in playing guitar and songs to prepare for participation in an interschool concert.
By this time, the audience may will be alert that there will be sexual identity themes, not quite as predicted, perhaps predicted with Mr Sherry, but making the relationship between Ned and Connor very awkward, so much so that Connor wants to opt out of the final match to win the championship.
Early in the piece, Ned tells us that there are moments in life that we will always truly regret – and there is certainly one here in his treatment of Connor. However, the experience of school, his not fitting in, his beginning to have a friend, enables him to defy his parents and try to persuade Connor to come back for the match.
This is a film about tolerance but, more, about understanding, especially about sexual identity and enabling people to be themselves, to be honest about their identity – which makes the team confrontation in the dressing room and the final expected Rugby triumph all the more joyous and exhilarating.
Handsome Devil (not really the most helpful title) obviously campaigns against homophobia – and has a sincere hope that there will always be understanding outcomes.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting