Life during wartime and one young recruit, Tom (Dexter Fletcher), is being instructed by an older soldier (Jim Carter) in how to survive in this conflict, but his advice doesn't seem to be getting through as the boy sits staring into space. When an officer (Gawn Grainger) walks up he exchanges a few words with Tom and goes on his way, but the old soldier warns him to stay away from that man because he's trouble. Suddenly the bombs begin to fall and the older man rushes for shelter, but Tom simply stands there dumbfounded - he really should run.
But should he run into the forest and become a deserter without having fired a shot? That was what the soldier was telling him is the last thing he should be doing, however once he snaps out of his trance, it all goes a bit wrong as his guide is blown up, he stabs the officer in the eye in his panic, and rushes off into the woods, never looking back. Although the conflict is never identified, we can surmise that it's World War One and the location is somewhere in Eastern Europe, in spite of most of the cast speaking with British accents, none more so than a certain Bob Hoskins whose idea this movie was, and who took the helm for debut as writer and director.
Hoskins based this on his grandmother's tales told to him as a child, as she was of Romany heritage and it's gypsies who Tom ends up travelling with once he has escaped from the Army. However, as the old soldier informed him, deserters, and anyone harbouring deserters, are executed without trial the minute they are discovered by the troops, so after an alarming encounter with a little girl who dresses him in a frock and puts makeup on him before revealing her family's bodies, murdered by the forces, he barely consciously adopts this cross-dressing disguise to escape his possible death. He gradually comes to his senses over the course of the movie though the others think he is a "rawney", that is a madwoman with mystical powers.
In spite of raising this fantastical element, Hoskins is never interested in it further than a sequence where Tom predicts the outcome of a horse race, and later when the Hoskins character, curiously named Darky, invokes the possibility of a curse befalling the tiny community though this appears to be basic superstition rather than anything taken from fact. Darky has a teenage daughter, Jessie (Zoë Nathenson) who having found Tom that fateful night of his desertion knows his secret and they fall in love, she guiding he back to some semblance of sanity. The trouble being that the world around them is going to hell in a handbasket, and the hope of their union lasting is very much up to circumstance.
From some angles you could think Hoskins read too many adventure novels by the likes of Ian Serraillier as a boy, never mind the influence of his grandmother's yarns, but as a certain bleakness sets into The Raggedy Rawney he did achieve a distinctive quality of his own, even if having established all these situations he didn't come across as knowing what to do with them. With Fletcher spending half the movie looking as if Christopher Nolan was taking notes for his version of The Joker in The Dark Knight, well, apart from the dress, and not being entirely coherent for much of that period either, we struggle to find a character to guide us through the plot, but somehow the collection of incident is enough to be reasonably compelling. Obviously ending this with a finale telling us the war was over would be too pat, but what we had in its place was rather too downbeat, though you can't say you weren't warned as the anti-war sentiment was not going to allow for sugarcoating. Folksy music by Michael Kamen.