The following article contains some spoilers for the recently released Irish film Handsome Devil, directed by John Butler. The film explores the friendship between a social outcast and the star athlete at a rugby-obsessed, all-boys private boarding school. The film stars up and coming Irish actors Fionn O’Shea and Nicholas Galitzine as the central characters.
In a key scene of Handsome Devil English teacher Dan Sheery, played by Andrew Scott, attempts to ease the fears of a young gay student struggling to come to terms with his sexuality with the promise of “it gets better.” Seeing the difficulty of reconciling his sexuality with his status as the star athlete in the hyper masculine world of an all-boys private school the character of Conor is left increasingly isolated and frustrated. On the surface Sherry’s advice seems solid enough. In the restrictive and highly pressurized world of his school it seems sensible to tell Conor to keep his head down and look forward to a time in the future where he is free of the constraints of school life. “It gets better” serves as a mantra, used to instill hope in young people like Conor that while it is impossible for them to fully be themselves in their current environment, at some point in the future they will be free to start fully inhabiting their own lives.In an interview for Jarlath Regan’s An Irishman Abroad podcast Butler questions the logic behind reassuring young people that their lives will be better once they leave school. For the character of Sherry school is seen a necessary and often brutal rite of passage that young people must endure before they reach the freedom of adulthood. Although undoubtedly well-meaning Sherry’s advice is revealed to be deeply problematic. In asking Conor to compromise his own identity, he is also accepting that the world he works and lives in is incapable of adapting to accept gay students or any pupils that feel like outsiders. The central contradiction in a character like Sherry is that while he demands that his pupils find their own unique voice, he compromises his own identity by hiding his sexuality from his students and co-workers. His promise that “it gets better” is proven to be pretty hollow. For Butler the failure of Sherry and the other authority figures in the film lies in their inability to recognize that it can be possible to claim your identity when you are still young rather than waiting for school to be over. Instead of encouraging students to adapt to their surroundings they should be looking at how the world of the school can change to accommodate students struggling with their own identity. As well as exploring the need for young people to be authentic to themselves the film also challenges stereotypes surrounding gay characters. During an interview on The Late Late Show in April 2017 Butler described how the film “stems from a memory” and recounts his own issues reconciling his love of sport with his identity as a gay man during his school years at Blackrock College. The real strength and originality of the film lies in its exploration of the danger of separating the world into binaries, questioning why the audience and school can’t see Conor as both an athlete and a gay man. In a more traditional film Conor would abandon the casual homophobia and hyper masculinity of school’s rugby and retreat into the creative and seemingly more inclusive world of music and literature opened up by Ned and Sherry. However the film shows that despite his apparent sensitivity Ned has plenty of his own hang-ups and prejudices, and his contempt for his school and peers, although understandable, is ultimately shown to be shallow. His disdain for rugby players makes it initially seem impossible to him that Conor could become a friend. Keeping with Sherry’s diagnosis of his “persecution complex” Ned constructs a literal barrier, his Berlin Wall, between him and his new roommate. He views his school and classmates in completely hostile terms and instead of attempting to form friendships he instead resigns himself to daydreams about getting expelled. Despite being based on Butler’s own school years the exact time-setting of the film is left ambiguous and the central theme of the need to challenge archetypes continues to have resonance for modern day cinema-goers. Instead of abandoning rugby Conor challenges the prejudices and perceptions of his coach and teammates by returning for the final match. The need to define someone by one aspect of their character is ultimately undermined. In confronting his coach and teammates Conor forces them to see him as both a rugby player and a gay man. The tendency to define characters by their sexuality is also challenged in the fact that Ned’s own sexual orientation is left ambiguous. In the end the film becomes about the importance of not compromising when it comes to personal identity. Seeing the futility in attempting to hide his sexuality from his co-workers Sherry decides to confront his own fears by introducing his boyfriend to the bemused school principle. His earlier reassurance to Conor that “it gets better” is shown to be problematic but not totally untrue. Rejoining the team Conor leads the school to victory and seems to find acceptance among his teammates and peers. The film doesn’t discount the possibility of life getting better for young people like Conor and Ned but instead challenges the reasoning that they should have to wait until adulthood for their lives to properly begin.
Butler, John. Handsome Devil. Treasure Entertainment, 2017.
Butler, John. ‘Episode 189.’ An Irishman Abroad, 30 Apr. 2017.
Butler, John and Andrew Scott, interview. The Late Late Show. RTÉ, 28 Apr. 2017.
Credit for cover photo to joe.ie. https://www.google.ie/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiP69qk_trTAhUpI8AKHXn_DeAQjRwIBw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.joe.ie%2Fmovies-tv%2Ftrailerchest-first-look-handsome-devil-potentially-best-irish-movie-2017-577120&psig=AFQjCNGdk8j7Ikog4l_oTsU9HuAhgGakBA&ust=1494150439427562. Accessed 6 May 2017.
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https://www.google.ie/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjfva_agdvTAhViBsAKHZnJAowQjRwIBw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.dailyedge.ie%2Fhandsome-devil-film-3232500-Feb2017%2F&psig=AFQjCNGdk8j7Ikog4l_oTsU9HuAhgGakBA&ust=1494150439427562. Accessed 6 May 2017.