The Consulate General of New York hosted a film screening on Nov. 21, of director John Butler’s latest work, “Handsome Devil.” Butler is known for films such as “The Stag” and “Spaceman Three,” but this film is a piece about the realities of being gay in Irish society and the persisting stigma around homosexuality in schools not just in Ireland, but around the world.
The film tells the story of a social outcast, Ned (Fionn O’Shea) who struggles with his distinct gay identity in an intensely conservative Irish boarding school outside Dublin. Throughout the film, Ned is constantly ridiculed by his homophobic peers, partly because he does not take an interest in rugby like all of the other boys at the school.
Initially, to his dismay, Ned receives a roommate named Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) who appears to be the polar opposite of him in that he is a star rugby player and is far more outgoing than the reserved introvert Ned is.
Both Ned and Conor form an unlikely friendship as the film progresses and ultimately become confident in who they are and how they identify themselves with the help of their new English teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott).
I noticed a direct parallel between this and the plot of “Dead Poets Society” in the sense that Mr. Sherry took on a mentoring role for both Conor and Ned, encouraging the two to take part in a talent show to demonstrate their musical talent. In “Dead Poets Society,” the English teacher, portrayed by Robin Williams, brings his class together by encouraging them to find themselves and stay true to who they are.
This caused Conor, who was highly closeted about his homosexuality throughout the film, to distance himself from Ned and focus solely on playing rugby and stick with the markedly homophobic status quo at the school. This happened because Conor’s traditionalist coach prompted him to focus on rugby to help the school win the championship, especially because of his suspicions regarding Mr. Sherry being gay and corrupting Conor.
Ultimately, in keeping with Butler’s others films, “Handsome Devil” was a distinctly light-hearted comedic film that dealt with very serious social undertones and commentary about contemporary Irish society, which to this day, despite being one of the first western countries to legalize gay marriage, is still confronting to a great extent.
Following the screening itself, I had the privilege to listen to the director take part in a Q&A session regarding his inspiration for making the film, as well as the social commentary that the film aimed to highlight for audiences.
When asked about the context behind the film, Butler stated that, “Growing up in Ireland then, it was very hard to find a role model for the type of person that I wanted to be, and when you’re young and lacking courage just to be yourself, you’re always looking for signals or signs of how to be in the world.”
He added that the film itself is not a period film, meaning that it does not necessarily take place during the time when he grew up, which would have been the 1980s, but rather it speaks to modern Ireland as well.
Butler also noted his love of the comedy genre in expressing himself cinematically. He pointed out that, “I am a comedy filmmaker through and through; I have this kind of inherent mistrust of drama or the perceived value of drama that it is the best form in which to discuss things that really matter.”
He went further on to say that life is not always completely serious and is supposed to be light-hearted, so to always portray life in this way through film would be misguided because life naturally has its ups and downs.
Although the film straddled a thin line between light-hearted comedy and intense drama, one of the major themes of the film was betrayal in the sense that Conor, after becoming friends with Ned, went on to betray him by sticking with the status quo and subsequently disregard him as if they had never been close.
In response to why he chose to make betrayal one of the key themes of the film, Butler said that, “This is a tough story in that regard; it really hangs Ned out to dry, as well as Conor. I love that because there really isn’t such a thing as heroes and villains, but rather good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things … I think that’s a more accurate reflection of the world as I see it.”
He goes on to say that, “Everybody in this film is misguided, everyone is the handsome devil and are taken back by Ned, who does not seem to define himself in rigid binary terms.” In essence, the film is a story about claiming one’s identity and being able to edge away from the comfort and safety that the status quo presents. One should always remain true to who they are and lead their own lives as opposed to following the pack.