Friday, April 2
LONDON -- Set in a church-run reformatory school in Ireland in 1939, "Song for a Raggy Boy" tries to draw a parallel between an institution that has lost sight of its ideals in favor of Draconian rules and the fascism of Franco's Spain. Based on Patrick Galvin's autobiographical novel of the same name, it's sort of a male version of Peter Mullan's "The Magdalene Sisters". While some of the acting is quite affecting, the characters are one-dimensional and the events predictable, making widespread appeal unlikely.
Aidan Quinn plays a gifted teacher named William Franklin, who fought with the communists in the Spanish Civil War and saw his wife executed by government troops. Unable to get a job back home, he becomes the first lay teacher at St. Jude's Reformatory School, where he encounters barely literate boys whose daily routine is one of abuse.
Their principal abuser is Brother John (Iain Glen), the school's prefect whose response to even the tiniest infraction is brutally violent. Conflict between Franklin and Brother John is established immediately and runs its course inevitably through the picture.
Brother John polices the wall to make sure the younger and older boys don't fraternize. When a boy burps during assembly, the prefect beats him with a leather strap until Franklin stops him. To demonstrate who is in charge, Brother John orders the boys out during the night to stand shoeless and shirtless in the rain.
To further symbolize the authoritarian state, there is a waist-high free-standing wall in the school's quadrangle. When two brothers greet over the wall on Christmas Eve, Brother John flogs them mercilessly. Franklin puts an end to it, but the two are now on course for a clash that becomes ever more predictable.
Meanwhile, Franklin's boys, who are well cast with believably uncinematic features and an appealing naturalness, are unbelievably taken from barely knowing the alphabet to appreciating Yeats. The brightest boy, Mercier (played with winning charm by John Travers), penetrates Franklin's reserve about his past, and we see in flashbacks some of the action he saw in Spain and the death of his beautiful wife.
When a seemingly friendly priest at the school, Father Mac (Marc Warren), turns out to be not only a brutal pederast but also Brother John Lackey,'s the stage is set for a denouement in which Mercier will play a tragic role.
The picture is well shot in a disused college in County Cork, with the bluntness of the stone and the constant damp more than enough to coarsen the spirit, let alone the behavior of the priests.
Quinn plays the saintly Franklin in an appealingly understated fashion, and his interplay with the boys feels right. As the ferocious Brother John, however, Glen does the full Krakatoa, foaming at the mouth as his vicious blows strike.
End-title notes tell us what happened to the characters after World War II broke out, including one who became the writer. He obviously wanted to tell the teacher's story and show how one man can change things. It's too bad the film is so black-and-white that his message doesn't truly resonate.
SONG FOR A RAGGY BOY
Director: Aisling Walsh
Screenwriters: Patrick Galvin, Kevin Byron Murphy, Aisling Walsh
Producers: Tristan Lynch, John McDonnell, Kevin Byron Murphy, Dominic Wright
Executive producers: Andres Vicent Gomez, Michael Lunderskov
Director of photography: Peter Robertson
Production designer: John Hand
Co-producers: Gillian Berrie, Peter Garde
Costume designer: Allison Byrne
Music: Richard Blackford
Editor: Bryan Oates
William Franklin: Aidan Quinn
Brother John: Iain Glen
Brother Tom: Dudley Sutton
Brother Mac: Marc Warren
Bishop: Claus Bue
Father Damian: Alan Devlin
Brother Whelan: Stuart Graham
Liam Mercier: John Travers
Patrick Delaney: Chris Newman
Rosa: Simone Bendix
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 97 minutes