Director Aisling Walsh for the most part brings an admirably even-handed approach to brutal material in “Song For a Raggy Boy,” adapted from Cork writer Patrick Galvin’s autobiographical account of the contradiction between piety and cruelty in an Irish-Catholic boy’s reform school. While it’s compromised by intrusive flashbacks, a heavy-handed score and a conclusion that opts for movie-ish uplift over muted resolution, the sober realism that prevails in many other aspects of the film makes this an absorbing, affecting drama that could score modest theatrical play in addition to wider attention in festival and TV slots.
Coming on the heels of “The Magdalene Sisters,” Walsh’s film represents a male counterpart to director Peter Mullan’s Venice fest winner about wayward Irish girls in a convent-prison. While it’s more conventional and no match for the earlier film’s incisive characters or searing attack on Church hypocrisy, “Raggy Boy” nonetheless taps a rich vein of pathos.
Returning to Ireland in 1939 stigmatized as a socialist after fighting with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, William Franklin (Aidan Quinn) takes a teaching job as the only non-cleric on staff at St. Jude’s, named for the Patron Saint of lost causes. He immediately clashes with disciplinarian Brother John (Iain Glen), who advises him the boys — mostly in their early teens — are degenerate creatures to be addressed by their inmate numbers.
Slowly breaking through their barriers of distrust, Franklin forges a kinship with the mostly illiterate truants, thieves and often blameless abandoned kids in his charge. He is particularly drawn to Mercier (John Travers), a plucky boy whose intelligence and questioning nature often are interpreted as rebelliousness.
Intervening to stop Brother John’s vicious punishment of the boys for every minor infraction, Franklin makes a powerful enemy in the priest. As the lay teacher works with the lads to instill a sense of achievement, self-worth, future possibility and freedom, Brother John intensifies his regime of fear, coming down increasingly hard on the boys and identifying in Mercier a means to strike back at Franklin.
While the screenplay judiciously avoids blanket accusations by confining the truly sadistic behavior to one priest, the film underlines the moral fragility of the Church. Authority figures choose not to see what goes on within the school’s walls or are aware of the brutality but too weak-willed to challenge the way discipline is maintained.
More disturbing still is the response when shy newcomer Delaney (Chris Newman) reveals during confession he was raped by Brother Mac (Marc Warren). Audiences likely will squirm to read in an end-title caption relaying the characters’ outcomes that the same priest transferred to a U.S. parish where he still lives.
The frequent flashbacks to Franklin’s bitter experience and loss of loved ones during the war represent an interruption that adds nothing essential in terms of thematic weight, and the visual use of overexposure to signify time change in the segs seems clumsily prosaic.
But it’s in the final act following a shocking explosion of violence that Walsh and her co-scripters really slip up. Ignoring more than one opportunity to end on a note of understated hope, the film lurches instead into syrupy territory recalling “Dead Poets Society.” The scene is especially jarring given the measured, unsentimental observation that characterizes the drama up to that point.
Quinn gives a warm, intelligent performance, quietly incorporating nuances of the troubled character’s damaged past as he establishes complex relationships with the kids, convincingly played by scruffy, authentic-looking urchins. Glen also impresses, his soft-spoken sternness simmering with rage and self-righteous contempt, delivering words of pure menace with chilling sanctimony.
Lenser Peter Robertson deftly contrasts the austere compositions and drab, colorless tones within the reformatory with softer light in the surrounding pastoral land where the boys do field work. More Spartan use of Richard Blackford’s overly lush and emotionally manipulative score might have been in order.