Bob Hoskins's "Raggedy Rawney" is one of those odd, misshapen children of ardor. It's a disaster, but one that comes straight from the heart, so it has around it a kindly aura -- the glow of oblivious awfulness.
The film, which the gifted English actor wrote, directed and starred in, reportedly is based on a story Hoskins heard first at a tender age from his Gypsy grandmother, presumably before his critical faculties had fully formed. Set at an unspecified time of war, in an unspecified country, it presents the story of a young army recruit named Tom (Dexter Fletcher), who runs away from his unit during a bombing raid and, suffering from shock, temporarily loses his mind. In this deranged state, he wiggles into a frilly little red dress -- he has a sort of Laura Ashley, Old Country peasant look -- blackens his eyes and smears on a layer of white pancake. And while wandering through the woods, he comes across a band of Gypsies who, after he demonstrates his magical powers, take him in.
With his full, voluptuous lips and skinny build, Tom is accepted without question as a woman. And for a time, it seems that he believes it as well. Just what he believes, though, or what the state of his mental health is remains mostly a mystery for much of the movie. Whatever the case, the leader of the Gypsies, Darky (played by the director), is happy to protect him, so long as he continues to perform such tricks as predicting the winners of horse races or divining the best fishing holes.
There are all sorts of other characters and digressions: an evil commanding officer (Gawn Grainger) who tries to hunt Tom down; soldiers who roam the countryside searching for young men to press into war service; a young Gypsy girl (Zoe Nathenson) who knows Tom's true identity and falls in love with him; a retarded boy (Timothy Lang) who is the illegitimate son of Darky and his former lover, Ellie (Zoe Wanamaker).
Unfortunately, Hoskins can't give his story any shape or cohesiveness. From watching the film, you wonder what this tale could possibly have meant to him or what point he wanted to make by repeating it. Oddly enough, the drama isn't a particularly rich showcase for his actors, either -- something you'd think would be of some importance to an actor. Hoskins's own character is authentic in that irrefutable way that's his trademark, but though there is urgency in his work, the paltriness of the material here holds him back. This limits his work as a director as well. He may be skilled as a filmmaker, but unless he improves in his choice of vehicles, we'll never really be sure. Maybe the true message here is, grandmothers should beware of the stories they tell.