How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate (1997)

Ireland

4*
Director:
Graham Jones
Screenwriters:
Graham Jones
Aislinn O’Loughlin
Tadhg O’Higgins
Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 77 minutes

First things first: This was the début feature of a 22-year-old, and yet neither the usual first-time desire to show off nor the flaws of not knowing how to direct actors are on show here. The film has fast pacing but slows down at very significant points to focus on effecting smooth transitions through credible though very well-written dialogue; it is also great fun.

Shot during the summer of 1996 and showing the last school year (culminating in the middle of 1997) at James Joyce College in Dublin, the film quickly assembles a group of characters who want to beat the system by cheating on the big school-leaving exam called the leaving certificate or just “leaving cert”.

The film exploits the creativity and ingenuity (and, perhaps, blind optimism) of school children to make us believe they can put their heads together and best the security of the establishment, i.e. the Department of Education. But they, and the filmmaker, present the case in almost meticulous fashion to make us believe this can be done, even by complete amateurs.

Now, as the narrator reminds us, “cheating in the exam properly isn’t easy”, and it takes the group of students, almost all of them intelligent in ways that are different to the one tested by the school-leaving exam, a full year to put together a plan that would work.

They have few real obstacles, but while there are one or two tense moments, including a classically staged but very effective sequence of cross-cutting that brings to mind the famous tennis sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the goal of How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate is to be more like a manual than a dramatic tale.

The idea of a manual is supported by delicious, informal but very informative narration provided by Nial O’Driscoll, who sets out all the information one would need to pull off the act of stealing the papers from the Department of Education’s high-security warehouse in the town of central rural Irish town of Athlone successfully.

The narrator also continuously reminds us of how important the exam is, and we often go back to the teachers who try to explain to their students how they should divide up their time to study for this once in a lifetime opportunity to make it big in the world and go to university. “Failure in the leaving certificate means failure for the rest of your lives!” a teacher bellows ominously in the opening scene.

The main actor in all this is Fionn (Garret Baker), a pupil whose friend Cian committed suicide when he was found cheating in his exams. Fionn is a lonely boy but he is committed to make a point by cheating and then coming out afterwards to show that his skill at staging such a heist apparently means nothing because it is not the kind of skill tested by the leaving certificate exam.

The logic is a bit flawed, but his quiet determination to prove to himself and to those around him the Department of Education is not as intelligent as they would like to think is certainly admirable and keeps the viewer glued to the screen.

The generally light-hearted approach of director Graham Jones to his material, especially in the form of the pleasure of listening to the narrator explain in great detail (at one point he even laughs at the naïveté of the characters, immediately endearing himself to us), goes a long way towards gaining our confidence that this is a film to be enjoyed fully.

And yet, with Cian’s suicide in the background and the sad face of Fionn claiming our attention in many scenes, it is also clear that this entertaining film is tinged with sadness that adds unexpected depth to the characters.

It is a great joy to watch this film, which shares the same kind of wit as The History Boys but is far more straightforward in its intentions and its emotions, perhaps unfortunately eschewing the complexity of the latter. The title tells us that everything will be fine, and the moments of dramatic tension because of uncertainty of what is going to happen are very rare. The writing is superior to the film itself, although there is the odd well-chosen visual flourish, and it would have been good to see Graham Jones contribute to more screenplays, which unfortunately has not really been the case since the release of this film.

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