The Devil’s Playground is a remarkably assured film about the students and staff at a school for young Catholics with a vocation to join the Brotherhood.Fred Schepisi’s autobiographical screenplay and fluid direction slip effortlessly between the world of the students (classrooms, eating halls, communal showers, dormitories, green fields) and teachers (cloisters, gloomy recreation rooms, day trips to the outside world of football games, public baths and pubs). Set in autumn 1953, the deeply textured photography of Ian Baker makes this potentially alien world more inviting and real.
Schepisi isn’t interested in traditional Catholic authoritarian villains. He lets us judge the effects of the endless regime of routine, rules and regulations by showing its cumulative effect on Tom Allen (a remarkable 13 year-old Simon Burke), a lively, dedicated and thoroughly likeable lad. Arthur Dignam is perhaps a little too rigid as the repressed Brother Francine, and - at the other extreme - Charles McCallum too kindly as the elderly Brother Sebastian.The performances - especially Burke and Nick Tate - are otherwise near universally fine. Only novelist Thomas Kenneally, a non-professional actor, whose gnomish visiting Father Marshall slips from affability to fire-and-brimstone preaching, sticks out in such a finely calibrated work.