Borstal Boy

        Despite an impoverished upbringing, Irish writer Brendan Behan
possessed an inquisitive mind and innate intelligence that he was able
to make a career in the arts. Since both sides of his family were fervently
anti-British, it was only natural that the young man would gravitate
to supporting the Irish Republican Army. In 1939, at the age of sixteen,
Behan was arrested in Liverpool, England for smuggling explosives.
Because he was under age, he was sent to a reformatory (or borstal) rather
than imprisoned. His experiences at the institution formed the basis of
his autobiographical novel
Borstal Boy. Behan went on to a career as a
playwright (
"The Quare Fellow", "The Hostage") and raconteur, but his
success ultimately led to an early death from alcoholism that exacerbated
his diabetes.        

        In 1970, a stage adaptation of
Borstal Boy by Frank McMahon won
the Tony Award as Best Play but despite that pedigree, a film version
never materialized. Some thirty years later, Peter Sheridan, the younger
brother of acclaimed filmmaker Jim Sheridan (
himself a respected memoirist, has turned Behan's book into a lovely
and touching motion picture.

        The story has elements that are familiar from similar genre movies
yet Sheridan and co-writer Nye Heron have managed to craft a fine
version of the novel that is true in spirit. The early scenes establish
Brendan (played with verve and skill by American Shawn Hatosy) as a
young man of political principle, steadfast in his views. What makes
the film so successful is that Sheridan and company chart Brendan's
subtle shifts in his belief systems. During his time at the borstal,
Brendan develops friendships with young men of different backgrounds,
particularly a British sailor with homosexual leanings (the excellent
Danny Dyer), learns about and begins to identify somewhat with Oscar
Wilde and experiences the throes of first love with the headmaster's
strong-willed, artistically-inclined daughter Elizabeth (Eva Birthistle).

        While Sheridan eschews flashy visual techniques for a more
straightforward narrative style,
BORSTAL BOY remains consistently
engrossing and entertaining, thanks in part to the crisp cinematography
of Ciaran Tanham and the fine production design of Crispian Sallis and
Michael Higgins. But it is the performances that make the film work
as well as it does. Hatosy offers a terrific performance complete with
acceptable Irish accent. While he may not exactly resemble the
real-life Behan, he infuses the screen character with equal parts
bravado and sensitivity. The role might easily have defeated a lesser
actor as much of the subtle changes in Brendan's character are internal,
but Hatosy finds ways to evince them physically. Matching him in
intensity is Danny Dyer (
THE TRENCH) as Charlie Millwall who also
takes what could be a simple stock character and makes him a
complex figure. Eva Birthistle does a nice turn as the free-spirited
woman who provokes feelings in both Charlie and Brendan and Michael
York is suitably cast as the decent governor of the borstal.

        Peter Sheridan makes a promising debut as a director with
BORSTAL BOY. Clearly drawing on his own abilities as a writer and
memoirist, he has turned Behan's autobiographical fiction into a small
gem of a film.

            Rating:                    B+
            MPAA Rating:           NONE
            Running time:          91 mins.
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.