Song for a Raggy Boy
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Aisling Walsh
scr Aisling Walsh, Kevin Byron Murphy
with Aidan Quinn, Iain Glen, John Travers, Chris Newman, Marc Warren, Dudley Sutton, Alan Devlin, Stuart Graham, Claus Bue, Simone Bendix
release US 19.Jan.03 Sundance; UK 9.Apr.04
03/Ireland 1h40

I walk the line: Warren, Newman and Glen in the prison--oops, school yard.

quinn glen warren
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Song for a Raggy Boy Based on a true story (but with the standard "all characters are fictional" disclaimer), this chilling drama is reminiscent of The Magdalene Sisters, as it examines a horrific aspect of Ireland's Catholic history. But the filmmakers undermine their point with a simplistic script that refuses to allow shades of grey in what should be a complex, disturbing story.

In 1939, William Franklin (Quinn) is the first lay teacher at St Jude's reform school. He's just returned from the Spanish Civil War and is haunted by memories of murdered friends and lovers, then he discovers the same kind of harsh fascism at St Jude's. The school is ruled with a brutal iron fist by Father John (Glen), who thinks the boys are mere animals, un-redeemable brutes who need fierce control at all times. Franklin, of course, has a heart of gold and draws out his students' talents and respect. The story basically centres on two of the boys, Liam and Patrick (Travers and Newman), who develop a strong bond with Franklin amid their particularly horrific experiences.

The story is very strong, as are the performances and filmmaking style, but the screenwriters opt for a hero-villain structure and a Dead Poets Society plotline that weakens the important issues the story raises. Glen's Father John is such a relentless thug that there's not even a glimpse of humanity in him; Warren's abusive Brother Mac is startlingly more sympathetic, even though his actions are equally reprehensible. Meanwhile, both Travers and Newman give brave, moving turns as "bad" boys getting far worse than they could ever deserve. But rather than examine these events in meaningfully, the filmmakers make the film a mere battle of wills between Glen and Quinn. This one-dimensional approach feels corny and contrived just when it should be shocking and cautionary. Like the Magdalene laundries, schools like St Jude's were still in use until the 1980s, and the offending clergy, while transferred away, were never charged with their crimes. It's a real pity that this film doesn't do justice to the victims.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 5.Mar.04

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... Song for a Raggy Boy Patrick Duncan, Belfast: 4.5/5 "An outstanding film from Ireland that is playing to strongly moved and even angry audiences in many parts of Europe as well as competing at the box office in its own territory favourably. It has won eleven awards, including either jury or audience awards at festivals. It tackles the tough and difficult-to-film subject of child abuse and manages to uplift your emotions before devastating and dashing them. All the performances, particularly those from Iain Glen as the sadist priest Brother John and from John Travers as the lead boy Mercier, are outstanding and achieving widespread recognition, and many people think this is Aidan Quinn's best role ever. Skillfully and humanely handled by director Aisling Walsh, the film has more conviction than others in its family of films such as The Magdalene Sisters or Conspiracy of Silence and deserves to be seen. Anyone still interested in honest, highly moving drama or anyone whose youth was not a bed of roses will appreciate this film. An unusual film in that, just possibly, men may cry at it." (13.Apr.04)

Erin Large, Ireland: 5/5 "this is one of the most beautiful films that really hits you where it hurts most. i am very interested in such films such as the magdelene sisters and song for a raggy boy and when i watch them over and over again my heart aches with a silent pain that is piercing my heart. aisling walsh really made a film that will never be forgotten." (7.May.04)

Clare Catney, Lisburn: 5/5 "I recently watched this film, and it had me reduced to tears by the end. This is a fantastic film. If you haven't seen, you are truely missing out. I believe this film is soon going to be a part of history. Amazing acting, fantastic storyline, what more could you ask for?" (28.Aug.04)

Song for a Raggy Boy Atro Up, Nevada: 3.5/5 "The teacher who touches the boys with his mind wins, in a pitched battle for their souls, over the priests who touch them with fists and other things. The teacher wants the boys to be in charge of their own souls, whereas the priests variously want their souls for God or the devil, or are less interested in their souls than in their bodies. The film is almost but not spoiled by the intercutting of incongruous and unconvincing Spanish Civil War-related content, which in the absence of any other overt characterisation and context for the teacher fails miserably to flesh him out, and by the ridiculous under-written and over-played character of the physically abusive priest. The boys save the film from the adults. The ending, while clearly derivative, has a layer which Dead Poets Society lacked: the boy who makes himself vulnerable to his peers and to the teacher does so in a way which is startling and moving for a child damaged in the way he has been. His deep trust in the redemptive powers of a figure of manly authority will not be conferred lightly." (11.Sep.04)

Siobhan, Australia: 5/5 "This movie will be sure to open up a few thoughts. I am Catholic, and it shocks me to think this kind of thing happened, and still probably does." (12.Sep.04)

2004 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall