School Life

 

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A film of huge potential that, for me at least, misfires.

 
School Life
   

The opening of this documentary by Neasa Ní Chianáin is immensely promising. The film's subject is a married couple, John and Amanda Leyden, both of whom have taught at Headfort School in Ireland just outside the village of Kells in County Meath ever since 1970. If the focus is on them, it is also on the school itself and one immediately warms to the idea of a screen portrait of two devoted teachers so caught up in their work that they can hardly imagine what life away from their school would be like. The film, presented without any voice over, is strictly observational. It starts intimately with the Leydens at home, their dogs much in  evidence, continues with atmospheric rural views on a drive to the school and then finds a high angle shot to introduce us to the magnificence of the school building itself (an 18th century stately home). 

 

What follows are short sequences shot over a year or so featuring the Leydens, the pupils, the headmaster and other members of staff. Some of these sequences are very brief indeed, but if they seem admirably natural they also come across as being all bits and pieces without any real shape or development beyond the progress made by Amanda when her pupils set out to stage scenes from Hamlet (more controversially she is a teacher who favours the books of Enid Blyton!). But, if some pupils make recurring appearances, including one who is dyslexic, we nevertheless fail to get to know them - or, indeed the other teachers - in any real depth and detail as individuals.
It's very disappointing that this film lasting some 99 minutes comes to feel so shapeless, but it's even more frustrating that the approach eliminates any commentary on the school. It is only from a website that I discovered that Headfort is Ireland's only remaining preparatory boarding school and, while there are pupils from other countries, nothing is said about how easy it is to get a place there nor about the substantial cost involved. We are told early on that to some extent the individual pupils choose themselves what they want to learn and much later it is observed of one girl that "messing around here and getting mucky will be good for her". But the details needed to clarify the school's procedures fully never emerge, even if the liberal outlook of this establishment can be gauged by the fact that we see one class in which the subject being discussed is same-sex marriage.

 

School Life has a relaxed air reflected pleasingly in the unobtrusive music score by Eryck Abecassis, but the longer that it goes on the more strongly one feels that the school and what it stands for would have gained by being presented in a film with a different approach, one containing interviews and comment. John Leyden with his love of pop music and Amanda with her determination to make learning fun do emerge as idiosyncratic individuals, as people whose teaching work keeps them alive, but even they would have come across more effectively in a film that did more than bring together snippets from a year's schooling leading up to a final prize-giving. Structure matters, as does ensuring that viewers get the information that they need.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  John Leyden, Amanda Leyden, Dermot Dix.

 

Dir Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane, Pro Angelo Orlando, Montse Portabella, David Rane and Efthymia Zymvragaki, Screenplay Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane with Etienne Essery, Ph Neasa Ní Chianáin, Ed Mirjam Strugalla, Music Eryck Abecassis.

 

Gris Medio/Radio Telelvisión Española (RTVE)/Soilisu Films/The Irish Film Board-Magnolia Pictures.
99 mins. Ireland/Spain. 2016. Rel: 13 October 2017. Cert. 12A.