'Borstal Boy' glosses over rough edges of an Irish rebel-turned-writer
Seattle Times theater critic
"It's not that the Irish are cynical. It's rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody."
That raffish observation is credited to Brendan Behan, a cheerful but self-destructive iconoclast and Irish literary icon who wrote several lasting works of prose and drama before drinking himself into the grave at age 41.
A spirit of scrappy irreverence only fleetingly surfaces in the well-made but mush-hearted film "Borstal Boy."
The movie is "inspired by" the 1958 book of the same title, Behan's chronicle of the time he served in English jails in the 1940s, for his activities as a member of the radical Irish Republican Army.
This sentimental adaptation directed by Peter Sheridan (and co-produced by Peter's filmmaker brother, Jim Sheridan) has an Irish pedigree — but a different agenda than the source material.
Behan's own nervy but humanistic account of hard time in a Liverpool jail, and a much easier ride in a Suffolk youth detention camp (borstal) where he began to study and write in earnest, is remolded into an uplifting fable of male bonding, romance and a long-shot escape attempt.
If you don't mind filmmakers sweetening up and simplifying the lives of actual complex people (à la "A Beautiful Mind"), you may find "Borstal Boy" a bucolic, sturdily acted coming-of-age tale.
But apart from the early scenes of the 16-year-old Behan getting himself busted for smuggling explosives into England, Sheridan and his co-writer Nye Heron gloss over the sharp edges of his rebel politics, and the audacity of his personality.
Their focus is on several fictional and fictionalized relationships Brendan (played by the attractive if not widely expressive American actor, Shawn Hatosy) gets involved in while confined in Suffolk.
Brendan's feelings for his gay borstal pal Charlie (Danny Dyer) shift from aversion to intimacy and attraction. He also acquires the paternal interest of the tolerant borstal superintendent, Joyce (Michael York). And, improbably, he gets cozy with Joyce's artist daughter, Liz (Eva Birthistle).
There has to be a bad guy in this sort of story, and here it is a doozy: a creepy, vicious, bigoted child molester who is the archetypal bad apple in the borstal barrel.
But what rings most patently false is the film's unspoken implication that getting close to individual English people led young Behan to exchange the joys of writing for the terrors of armed rebellion.
The unmentioned, more intriguing truth is that soon after being deported back to Ireland, Behan was accused of shooting a police officer at an IRA rally, and spent five years in prison. Only later, after a more subtle transformation, did he turn away from violent revolt.