What with “If…” (1968), “Maurice” (1987) and both versions of “Brideshead Revisited” (the 1981 TV mini-series and the 2008 theatrical release) it would appear that British schoolboy romances are a gay sub-genre unto themselves.
That’s one of the reasons why “Handsome Devil” is such a welcome sight. For rather than go through the usual paces of furtive glances, clandestine smooches, tremulous declarations and tears, this Irish-produced yet British-to-the-core production written and directed by John Butler centers on a pair of gay schoolmates who don’t “hook up” or even connect all that much, save for a mutual interest in music. In fact, for the better part of the action they might well be described as “Frenemies.”
Right at the start, Ned (Fion O’Shea) announces to us that this is a story about his “most embarrassing moment.” And by that he doesn’t mean his own “outing,” but rather the very public way he “outed” the classmate who, at the very least, should have been his ally but who instead nearly became his victim. Enter that very British form of football known as “Rugby.” The school the boys attend is utterly “Rugby”- besotted.
So much does the game dominate everything that at one point classes are cancelled so the entire student body can go to cheerleading practice. Ned has no interest in “Rugby” — he’s small, non-athletic and intellectual. His roommate Conor (Nicholas Galtazine) is an entirely different story, being tall, well-built and a wiz at sports. Because of his size and manner he’s also able to get into the local gay bar without even having his I.D. checked. Not the case for Ned. Had he done so he would have learned what Conor already knows — that their favorite teacher, Mr. Sherry (Andrew Scott), is gay.
Sherry has been encouraging the boys to follow the one pursuit that brings them together — music. He helps them rehearse a song number, a la Simon and Garfunkel, for the school’s talent show. Needless to say, this is frowned upon by the “Rugby” coach and the other students devoted to the game.
Homophobic taunting and physical bullying are par for the course. And so, unable to put up with it any longer, Ned outs Conor in public to virtually the entire school. Chaos ensues. Conor runs away. But Ned finds where he’s hiding out and brings him back in time to win the big game. And this in turn underscores the paradoxical nature of “Handsome Devil.”
For while it wants to criticize bullying and homophobia attendant upon “Rugby,” it also wants grand game-winning finale just like the ones in Horsefeathers and Good News. Not fully explored is the role envy and unfulfilled desire plays in all of this.
Ned and Conor share a room. But Ned makes sure to construct an artificial ‘wall’ to separate them. This serves to indicate to the other students that he’s keeping his hands off Conor. But he’s also doing it to stave off the temptation of putting his hands on him. The scene where he’s barred from the bar that allows Conor entry is, in many ways, a turning point. Yet Butler downplays it to the film’s detriment.
Ned’s desire for Conor, and disappointment that he can’t fulfill this desire should be made clearer. Still “Handsome Devil” is a lively gay romance, even though it isn’t all that romantic.
Nicholas Galtazine is a handsome devil indeed.