As an adult, Irishman Brendan Behan was known for two things, the vivid plays he wrote ("The Quare Fellow," "The Hostage") and the commotions he caused when he was inebriated, which was often. A self-described "drinker with a writing problem," he died at age 41; his funeral is said to have been Dublin's largest since that of the great hero of independence, Michael Collins.
"Borstal Boy," "inspired by" Behan's memoir of the same name, is a portrait of that troubled artist as a young man trying to figure out how to be himself. Carefully and intelligently made by director Peter Sheridan, it is, as Sheridan's co-writer Nye Heron has said in interviews, somewhat of a romanticization of a portion of Behan's life.
Behan is introduced, just so there's no mistaking his sentiments, strapping dynamite to the insides of his thighs. It's 1939 and, though a teenager, Behan's a committed IRA partisan, smuggling bomb-making equipment into England and prepared to die for the Irish cause if necessary. The despised British legal system, which quickly captures him, has other ideas for the young man. Because Behan's underage, he's sent to a British reform school, or borstal, in East Anglia, where the inmates are made to wear short pants to remind them that they are still boys, which, despite their bravado, they very much are.
This borstal is run by C.A. Joyce, who, like the film, is kindly without being a pushover. As played by Michael York in one of his best performances in years, Joyce is both caring and firm, telling the boys that they had better not "sneak off without telling me."
The film gives Joyce something he apparently didn't have in real-life, an eligible young daughter named Liz (Eva Birthistle), who just happens to be an artist and who just happens to be on-site at the same time Brendan is. Naturally, some romantic interest is in the offing, but Liz's function is more to stimulate Behan's creative side and help his lifelong antipathy toward the English dissipate.
Most of "Borstal Boy" involves Behan's interaction with the other boys, including such recognizable types as Dale (Lee Ingleby), the resident bully, and Jock (Robin Laing), a tireless escape artist. And then there is Charlie Millwall (Danny Dyer), whose interaction with Behan is more intense and less predictable.
Charlie is an unapologetically gay Naval cadet who definitely fancies the young Irishman. Though the film initially shows Behan bristling at anything resembling a comforting male presence, one of "Borstal Boy's" strengths is the naturalness with which it portrays Behan's acknowledgement of his increasing sexual duality, his attraction to both Liz and Charlie.
Though you wouldn't necessarily know it, "Borstal Boy" is the first feature-length film for director Sheridan, who has considerable theater experience, often in combination with his brother Jim ("My Left Foot," "In The Name of the Father"), who is one of this film's executive producers.
Assured and well-crafted, "Borstal Boy" mixes tragic events with expected happenings like the de rigueur sports event (it's a rugby game this time) between the inmates and representatives of authority. Even if the notes are quiet and in a minor key, Sheridan manages to hit them just right.
No MPAA rating. Times guidelines: some beatings and adult subject matter.
Shawn Hatosy...Brendan Behan
Danny Dyer...Charlie Millwall
Eva Birthistle...Liz Joyce
Michael York...C.A. Joyce
Released by Strand Releasing. Director Peter Sheridan. Producers Pat Moylan, Arthur Lappin. Executive producers Jim Sheridan, Nye Heron. Screenplay Nye Heron, Peter Sheridan, based on the book by Brendan Behan. Cinematographer Ciaran Tanham. Editor Stephen O'Connell. Costumes Marie Tierney. Music Stephen O'Connell. Production design Crispian Sallis. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
In limited release.