The Butcher Boy

6 June 2016

Over the years, numerous directors have portrayed childhood in film, and some of them have done so in an extremely affecting and poignant way. Films like Francois Truffuaut’s 400 blows or Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander have left their mark on film history, partly because the directors dared to present childhood as a period of great insecurity and unhappiness, and not as the most idyllic period of one’s life. “The Butcher boy”, a film directed by the irish director Neil Jordan in 1997, is a rather overlooked film, that rarely appears in film critics’ lists of great films. Yet, this film is a masterful portrayal of a disturbed childhood, dominated by great unhappiness and loss.

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“The Butcher Boy” is based on irish author Patrick Mc Cabe’s highly-praised and controversial novel of the same name. It tells the story of young Francie Brady, a teenage Irish boy, living in a small town in western Ireland in the 60’s. Francie is a free-spirited and wildly imaginative boy with a passion for comic books. Unfortunately, his carefree adolescence is stigmatized by the tragic circumstances of his family life. His father is struggling with alcoholism and his mother is mentally disturbed, and eventually commits suicide. The boy has never been shown any real tenderness because both of his parents were overwhelmed by their own misery. His mother’s suicide is enough to drive the already fragile Francis to his limits. From that point on, the boy slowly descends into madness, as he is filled with feelings of rage and aggressiveness.

This aggressiveness is soon directed toward Ms Nugent, a neighbour of the Bradies, who has always been extremely critical of Francie because of his lack of “proper” manners and his undignified family situation, often referring to the boy and his family as “pigs”. To Francie she is the embodiment of evil. When his misery reaches unbearable heights, Francie, who at some point is employed in a butcher shop, breaks into Mrs. Nugent’s house and slaughters her. He ends up in a mental institution and is released years later, when he has reached middle age.

The feeling of uneasinees which pervades the film is caused not only by its disturbing subject matter, but also by Jordan’s directing technique. The director has always had a knack for blurring the line between reality and imagination. In “The butcher boy” everything is seen through Francie’s distorted point of view. For example, Mrs Nugent, who is in fact just an overly conservative, gossipy middle-aged woman is presented as an ogre in the film. The director has filmed the actress Fiona Shaw in a very unflattering way, emphasizing her grotesque grimaces and her annoying voice. This way the viewer views her as the appalling woman that Francie sees. Another example of this is the portrayal of Francie’s hallucinations. There are a number of scenes in the film, when Francie, in his imagination, is visited by the Virgin Mary, who comes to advise him or encourage him. These visits are the only source of consolation in his sad life, and appropriately, these specific scenes of the film are filled with light.

Despite the main character’s portrayal as a psychotic teenager, Francie earns the viewer’s sympathy, and this is largely due to the performance of the protagonist Eammon Owens. The young actor manages to convey the desperation that underlies Francie’s aggression and his violent outbursts. He portrays Francie as a boy who is unable to cope with life in a rational way, because he has been driven mad by his misfortunes. Another element, which makes the main character likable is his dark sense of humour. Since the story is told in first-person narrative by the older Francie himself, the audience is treated to Francie’s sarcastic observations about the events that unfold. Somehow, this bitter humour makes the film even more poignant. It is obvious, that the director was not interested in making a horror film about a dangerous sociopath, but a potent statement about the effects that lack of love and guidance can have on a young soul. The butcher boy can by no means described as a “pleasant film”, despite its light-hearted moments. It is often violent, disturbing and depressing. But anyone who can look past the element of violence and cruelty, will be rewarded with a deeply affecting story about a boy who, as a character in the film points out “never really had a chance.”

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