I've fallen in love with this.
I first heard about The Raggedy Rawney in 1996, in an interview Bob Hoskins and Ian Dury did for Gaby Roslin's short lived, ill-fated Saturday night chat show. It's taken me twenty years to see it - not helped by the fact that it has never been shown on TV - but I finally got round to it last night.
The film was shot in Czechoslovakia and marked the directorial debut of Bob Hoskins, and he also co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole De Wilde. A deeply personal project, the film was inspired by tales told to him as a child by his gypsy grandmother. You really get a sense of Hoskins the man in this film, away from the screen tough roles he was famous for; here he displays his bohemian and eccentric spirit (it's easy to forget that he was once part of the great Ken Campbell's Roadshow, alongside fellow co-stars here such as Dave Hill and Jane Wood) and the film has a clear pacifist, all-embracing message, casting several actors with disabilities (chief amongst them the aforementioned Dury and Timmy Lang, a young actor with Downs Syndrome) with the action and the backdrop of war resolutely being set in both an unspecified time and place - though it feels largely Eastern European and at any point between the 1900s and the 1940s. It wasn't any one nation that we should perceive as an enemy, Hoskins felt, but the notion of conflict itself.
The story concerns Tom, played by Dexter Fletcher, a drafted boy soldier who, in his first brush with battle, freezes. Threatened with death by Gawn Grainger's Officer, Tom strikes him, blinding him in one eye, and escapes into the countryside. He's discovered in a barn one morning by a young girl playing with make-up and allows her to paint his face and dress him in woman's clothing before she shows him to her family. In one of the film's most hard-hitting, poignant scenes it is revealed that the girl's family have all been killed for collaborators and displayed around the farm as a warning to others, something the girl seems oblivious to. Fleeing the scene, Tom stumbles across a passing band of gypsies, led Darky (Hoskins) who mistake Fletcher not just for a female, but also for a rawney - a traveller's word meaning a woman possessed with magical, seer-like powers - and, believing 'her' to bring good fortune, he takes Tom into their company.
The film focuses on the lives of the wandering travellers who simply want to pass through the land, going about their business as they always have. The war means little to them, though they must hide the young men in their band from roaming troops, led by the vindictive Grainger, who would press-gang them into service. At its best, The Raggedy Rawney is full of beautifully shot set pieces (Frank Tidy's photography is particularly nice and Hoskins shows a real eye for cinema) such as a jubilant traditional gypsy wedding and fertility rite, and an eccentric odd assortment of characters, with actors from Ireland, Scotland, the north of England and 'cockneys' making up our travelling family - portrayed by many familiar faces who had, by and large, all worked with Hoskins previously in other productions. But the tale gradually darkens towards a grim and somewhat less successful second half as Tom embarks on a secretive romance with Darky's daughter Jessie (Zoë Nathenson) which lead to devastating consequences that force Darky to consider if his 'rawney' is actually more of a curse than a blessing.
Like with many directorial debuts, the film suffers a little from this somewhat disconcerting shift in tone and a less than assured hand on the crux of the plot when it eventually arrives. There's a tendency to throw a little bit too much at the piece to make up for its more languid, character-driven and largely innocent first half which many new filmmakers ultimately fall prey to. But to his credit Hoskins commits greatly to his theme and overall it is delivered with huge sympathy that helps overcome these issues. In Robert Sellers book about Handmade Films, Very Naughty Boys, he cites several less than favourable reviews from the critics of the time, including this one from The Observer; "The whole affair resembles a version of Brecht's Mother Courage commissioned by UNICEF from the authors of EastEnders" Its intentions are clearly to damn, but actually, I find that a fair and favourable appraisal. Overall, Hoskins delivers a solid statement of survival and how the horrors and tragedies of war are made up mostly of the sufferings of the innocent and ordinary, little people - 'civilians'.