‘When I was a young lad, 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, I lived in a small town, where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent. If she hadn’t of poked her nose in between me and Joe everything would have been alright’.
This opening phrase used by the protagonist Francis ‘Francie’ Brady in a droll adult voice over by Stephen Rea, sets the scene for everything that follows. Francie Brady (played by the wonderful Eamonn Owens) is the small town terror in 1960s Ireland, a son of an alcoholic musician father (Stephen Rea) and a mentally unstable mother (Aisling O Sullivan). His hateful obsession is the haughty Misses Nugent (Fiona Shaw) and her son Philip whom he suspects will eventually steal his best friend Joe Purcell from him.
There has been an interesting development in advertising trailer for certain Irish films: disguising themselves as comedies. This may be the work of film studios nervous of their investment, trying to lure as big an audience as possible to see it. Films like The Butcher Boy, In Bruges and Adam and Paul all have elements of comedy but surely cannot be considered as such. There is tragedy hidden within the humour – arguably the classic Irish defensive mechanism - protected by having the ‘craic’. The aforementioned films are perfect examples of this. This is not to say that the films named are not good, rather to say they are not billed as advertised.
In the case of The Butcher Boy, Neil Jordan's wonderful film, the good may indeed be grim, but the good is very good indeed. It is a heady mixture of styles, pitch black comedy, a heartbreaking drama of small town Ireland and its hypocrisies and a desperately human analysis of mental illness, loneliness and the dangers of alienation.
Francie and Joe spend their days playing cowboys and indians and imagining a better life. Francie Brady begins to unravel after hearing Mrs. Nugent call his family pigs. The word pig becomes one of the central themes of the film, evidenced even in the opening quote, with Mrs. Nugent poking her nose into other peoples business. There is even a surreal scene imagined by Francie of the effect of an atomic bomb on the town, with everyone frozen in place and represented as pigs. An attack on the Nugent’s house gets Francie sent away to a care home run by a friendly priest Father Bubbles (Brendan Gleeson). There is an older priest (Milo O Shea) who starts dressing Francie up in bonnets and abusing him. Through the appearance of being a hard worker and not a trouble maker (“and, the Francie Brady "Not a Bad Bastard" award goes to . . . be God, I think it's Francie Brady”) he manages to convince Father Bubbles to send him home. Francie becomes more violent with the news that Joe and Philip have become friends and the largely darkly comic tone all but disappears as Francie attempts to gets his revenge on the town and Mrs. Nugent.
By turns tragic, funny, surreal and sad The Butcher Boy is no easy watch. Indeed Francie Brady is a commendably unsympathetic and at times an unlikeable lead character on the surface - bullying people in the town for his own amusement. But there are some tragic moments which show the torment and anger within him. He bicycles to the town where his parents had their honeymoon. He goes to the bed and breakfast that they stayed in hoping to imagine the great times they had, his mother laughing and father entertaining the other guest with his music. The look on his face is heartbreaking when he told by the landlady that his father was drunk all the time and ruined the honeymoon. Indeed I think the word heartbreaking sums up this movie best. The Butcher Boy is quite simply one of the best Irish films ever made and may well be Neil Jordan’s masterpiece.