Film Review: Handsome Devil

Irish adolescent coming-of-age tale is undone by a basic lack of freshness and haphazard direction and script.
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At a posh, rugby-mad Irish boarding school, Ned (Fionn O’Shea) is bullied for being unathletic and bookish, which in his case is also perceived by his tormentors to be that horror of horrors, gay. Things begin to change with the arrival of his new roommate Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), who at first blush would seem to be everything that Ned is not: handsome, self-assured and instantly popular due to his prowess on the athletic field. After a shaky start, the two bond deeply (primarily through a love of music), both of them decidedly different from the school pack, and this alliance gets the heat off Ned for a spell. But homophobic forces return to despoil their dormitory demi-paradise.

This autobiographical coming-of-age saga was obviously close to writer-director John Butler’s heart. Too close, perhaps. It’s 2017 and, while anti-gay sentiment certainly still exists, enough progress has been made, both publicly and in the media, to render all the anguished heavy breathing in this film as somewhat passé. It’s a case of been there-done that, as you watch the boys in Handsome Devil shakily navigate their own personal emotional development—with the obligatory, brutal rejection scene of Ned by Conor—and try to seem surprised when it turns out that one of their teachers, Dan (Andrew Scott), is gay himself. (He actually says, “It gets better,” at one point.)

Dan has a parallel storyline to that of the boys, as he has his own nemesis in the form of overly macho rugby coach Pascal (Moe Dunford), who gets up in his grill about “perverting” his boys and such like. All of this hand-wringing over sexuality gets seriously in the way of the sports season, and things come to a head during the climactic big match—of course—wherein Pascal pushes his angrily hateful agenda so hard that it results in his entire team going into an “I am Spartacus” routine in support of Conor and, tacitly, Ned. A crucial rugby victory naturally ensues, as the film gets way overblown in the excitement of showing a game about which most Americans are clueless, accompanied by the insistent god-awful music score chosen by the director (which also includes the tired, whiny songs which comprise our heroes’ bromantic duets).

The adult actors, including Michael McElhatton as a thumping bore of an ineffectively “equitable” headmaster, essay their “I’m good-he’s bad” roles with an off-putting hamminess, while O’Shea does not personally project enough interest for us to seriously relate to him as a protagonist 

The talented and comely Galitzine, however (who was also so good in the dance flick High Strung), is easily the most appealing performer in the cast. Yes, he plays the golden boy here, but with such becoming naturalness and innate modesty that you sympathize far more with his Conor than eternal victim Ned.

Click here for cast and crew information.