Movie Review: A VERY young Liam Neeson is a priest who runs off with a school boy in “Lamb”

Yes, that headline’s accurate, and sure, it’s a tease.

But that plot description of “Lamb” means something far more sinister now than it did in 1985, when this British production was released.

It’s a disturbing and odd drama about a young priest, played by a very young and lean Liam Neeson, who has a crisis of faith brought on by his work.

Brother Sebastian teaches at St. Kiaran’s School, a windswept, cliffside pile facing the howling Atlantic (actually the King Arthur’s Castle Hotel, Tintagel, Cornwall). He’s still young and idealistic enough to be sympathetic to his charges at this Catholic reform school. But he has to turn something of a blind eye to the heaping helpings of corporal punishment handed out by the older priests.

The arrival of tiny, troubled Owen Kane (Hugh O’Conor, who went on to play Coleridge in the recent “Mary Shelley”) opens that blind eye. The kid’s callous mother has given up on the ten-year-old’s backtalking, smoking, thieving and cursing ways. Not to worry, Brother Benedict (Ian Bannen) purrs. They’ll straighten him out.

Sebastian hears the boy’s sad story in counseling sessions and is appalled when the tiniest lad in the school is whipped for graffiti he couldn’t have drawn. Because he’s too bloody short. Brother Benedict is all understanding chuckles and shrugs — “as long as we punish SOMEone.”

“It’s the stick that shows we care,” he insists. “And if you use it, be sure to HURT’em!”

When Brother Sebastian’s father dies and leaves him a little money, his second thoughts about this vocation become more obvious. That leads to veiled threats from Benedict, who has the smug certainty of a goon in a theocratic Catholic state where the Church has influence everywhere. Has his eye on that inheritance, I dare say.

That’s what triggers the rash, half-planned escape. Sebastian will spirit away the child, go back to being Michael Lamb (his name before taking his vows) and go on the lam. Their travels will take them to Dublin and London, put Michael in one fix after another as he has to pose as the lad’s father, find a job and keep nosy members of the Irish diaspora from figuring out who they are.

There’s a lot of “Just what the hell is going on here?” tossed in with the obvious “What was he thinking?” in “Lamb.”

It’s a British production in the mid-80s, so the take on Catholicism and Irishness in general wasn’t going to be pre Good Friday Accords generous. Michael takes a construction job where other Irish workers (in London) ask if he’s “one of THEM” or “one of US” when he lies and says he’s from “The North.”

Bannen’s priest is almost comically sadistic, as if hinting at the horrors of Catholic orphanages and “laundries” in Catholic Ireland, crimes and injustices that would only come to light later.

Director Colin Gregg (“We Think the World Of You”), adapting a Bernard MacLaverty novel, keeps us guessing, and not in flattering ways. It’s a story that paints itself into a corner and limits itself to setting fire to the house that corner is in for its resolution.

Neeson shows the leading man promise that would only bear fruit a couple of years later, stealing “A Prayer for the Dying” from Mickey Rourke and “Suspect” from Cher. But we get little sense of his character’s impulsiveness in any of the earlier scenes here. His father’s pride in him joining a religious order is obvious. Why would he throw all that away? His “planning” seems limited to telling the boy to pack, stealing the school van and stopping at the first jewelers’ he sees to buy a fake wedding ring for his cover story.

As they take off on this rash odyssey, the overarching impression is naive, poor and unworldly — a young man who never learned the ways of the world and puts it all off on being “another stupid Irishman.” Poverty’s more like it, mate.

The movie’s melodramatic flourishes include Owen’s epilepsy and Michael’s constant use of the phrase, “Wait here, Owen.” Owen is troubled, with a serious health condition and zero impulse control. What could go wrong?

The kid is a foul-mouthed wonder, and between his profanity and Bannen’s twinkling sadism, “Lamb” flirts with being a comedy, here and there.

It isn’t. And more’s the pity. The stiff, symbolic crisis-of-conscience/priest-goes-mad drama doesn’t play, not today, anyway.

MPA Rating: unrated, smoking, profanity

Cast: Liam Neeson, Hugh O’Conor, Ian Bannen

Credits: Directed by Colin Gregg, script by Bernard MacLaverty, based on his novel. A FilmFour release.

Running time: 1:49

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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