A story set in 1939 in an Irish Reformatory School for boys, this film
immediately brings to mind last year's gruesome "Magdalene Sisters." Its
content -- if not its quality -- is much the male counterpart of the
Church-run asylums where young women were sent as punishment for breaking the country's moral code, and which were in existence until the late 1990s.
"Song for a Raggy Boy" (IMDb listing) is based on the autobiographical novel by Patrick
Galvin and sees Irish-American actor Aidan Quinn (probably best remembered
for his turn as the long-suffering older brother in "Legends of the Fall")
take on the lead role of teacher William Franklin in this overly ambitious
but justifiably cruel and heartbreaking film.
William Franklin arrives at St. Jude's reformatory school to join its staff
as the sole lay teacher. Just returned home from fighting in the Spanish
Civil War, the compassionate and idealistic Franklin has high hopes of
making a real difference in the prevalent fascist regime. Hopes that are
dashed quickly by head prefect Brother John (Iain Glen), who rules over the
boys with an ironclad hand. A power struggle between Franklin, who nurtures
the boy's individuality and teaches them to read and write, and the
heartless, fervent Brother John, who believes in breaking them by instilling
fear and administering punishment, escalates quickly and with terrible,
A labor of love years in the making for director Ainsling Walsh, she
co-wrote the story with author Galvin, who describes the making of the film
as the final act of exorcising the demons of his past.
Necessarily and accurately the film depicts vicious violence, physical and
emotional torture that are all the harder to watch because children are
involved. Although the ultimate message is hope, some might find it hard
to give the story the opportunity to get there.
The cast of well-known character actors, and particularly the boys (all first-time actors cast off the street and out of their local boxing clubs
throughout Ireland), give formidable and heartfelt performances. Quinn
at times struggles to fill the heroic shoes, but the film as a whole
hopelessly overshoots its aim, initially taking too long to set up,
complicating matters with the redundant Civil War flashbacks, and suffering
a touchy-feely ending after the horrendous climax.
Filmfodder Grade: C