New Films: The Big Picture - Reality under the knife

THE BUTCHER BOY (Neil Jordan, 15)
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When a director chooses to set an entire film inside one character's twisted imagination, he risks losing that portion of the audience who feel they have more productive things to do than view the world through warped eyes. But mental instability is portrayed so blithely in The Butcher Boy that it's hard to imagine anyone recoiling from the picture's distorted reality. This is a film that takes disturbing incidents and feeds them through a mincer to extract the macabre comedy from the horror - a film where ECT looks like a bit of a laugh, where terrorising the neighbours is what passes for impetuous fun, where you only know that a man has died in his armchair because the flies are settling on his face and he isn't brushing them away.

The picture begins at a point of derangement and just keeps soaring. In adapting his own novel for the screen with the director Neil Jordan, Patrick McCabe has retained the jittery first-person perspective of his unhinged hero Francie, though the medium of film allows for some punchy interplay between the voice-over supplied by the older Francie, and the ramblings of his 13-year-old incarnation, who is the subject of the story. The younger Francie trades questions and answers and archaic mutterings with his unseen adult self, though this device doesn't pull you out of the movie - it gives a tangible identity to the voice that is echoing in the child's head, and denies the voice-over its conventional function, which is to provide a cool distance between the story-teller and the story. In fact, Jordan and McCabe don't offer any reprieves: they tangle you up in Francie's madness so that you can't separate the world from his hallucinations.

The film has the appearance of a rites-of-passage story, with the nostalgic softness of its photography, and the rounded little vignettes about how eccentric adults seem to be to the young. In early scenes, it feels as though Jordan is toying with our preconceptions, exaggerating the idyllic Swallows and Amazons atmosphere of Francie's riverside adventures to the point of parody. In the same way that the boy keeps the town's gossip amused with a cheeky-chappy routine that disguises his internal confusion, Jordan initially placates his audience by serving up an imitation of the vacuum-packed version of childhood that has been the chief export of European cinema. But The Butcher Boy departs from the route of the rites-of-passage movie; it doesn't darken as it progresses, or peel away any false surfaces, the sustained delirium of its tone simply eats into you. And Francie doesn't mature or progress: like Oskar in The Tin Drum, he is a human full stop; life just carries on around him.

Jordan has taken several cues from Volker Schlondorff's film of The Tin Drum, most obviously in the casual presentation of extraordinary events. When the Virgin Mary appears to Francie, it is an occasion no more remarkable than running into a friend at the greengrocer's, a feeling increased by Our Lady's habit of cursing sweetly at the boy, and Francie's manner as referring to her as "missus". Even the sudden and shocking act of violence that provides the film with the closest thing it has to a climax comes out of nowhere, rendered with neither passion nor sensationalism.

The picture has been styled in imitation of Francie's mind, where innocent details are consigned for reinterpretation. The beastly Mrs Nugent (Fiona Shaw) calls Francie a pig, and as he begins to act like the animal he is accused of resembling, the porcine motifs pile up. Situations that might otherwise be the source of sombre drama are viewed from an opportunistic angle consistent with Francie's way of thinking - it turns out to be a good thing that a priest dresses him up in a bonnet and pearls because in order to keep the scandal quiet, Francie is allowed to leave the boys' home where he has been sent after a family tragedy. The film doesn't suggest that he is impervious to pain, but rather that he has experienced enough of it to know how to exploit misfortune for personal gain.

Francie appears in every scene, so it is lucky that Jordan has found such a commanding actor in the newcomer Eamonn Owens. He is not called upon to illicit your sympathy, though it is a fair if unorthodox test that an actor who can remain engaging even as he is defecating on a living- room rug must be doing something right. It was also clever of Jordan to use Stephen Rea as the voice of the adult Francie, as well as in the role of Francie's alcoholic father, though I'd question the wisdom of casting Sinead O'Connor as the Virgin Mary, since the joke of having the Pope's most notorious critic playing a religious icon, while a neat one, places the film's hermetic fairy-tale universe in jeopardy.

The most heartening aspect of The Butcher Boy is that it represents Neil Jordan's return to what his first three films - Angel, The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa - proved he does better than any other film-maker of his generation. In his hands, the familiar seems grotesque and entrancing and seductive. He is a born dreamer; his dreams have the weight of life.

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