A drama “inspired” by Irish writer Brendan Behan’s autobiographical book of the same name, “Borstal Boy” mixes a rites-of-passage story with political and sexual elements to solid but finally uninvolving results. This feature debut by theater director Peter Sheridan (brother of helmer Jim Sheridan) will likely get its longest parole on the small screen, where its unadorned shooting style and unremarkable dramatics will play best.
During the early days of WWII, 16-year-old Brendan (Shawn Hatosy), a staunch Irish republican, is arrested in Liverpool after disembarking with some sticks of dynamite strapped to his legs. His bombing mission thus thwarted, he’s sent to a reform school for youngsters (“borstal”) in the flatlands of East Anglia, in the backside of England.
Fanatically anti-British, Brendan finds himself living side by side not only with the perceived enemy but also with an assortment of juvenile delinquents, including a Polish Jew who tried to escape to Palestine; a Cockney sailor, Charlie Milwall (Danny Dyer), who dreams of fleeing to Singapore; and a Scottish lad, Jock (Robin Laing).
Life in borstal slowly forces Brendan to learn to live with others, and at least mitigate his blind hatred of the Brits, without losing his principles. The revelation of one of the boys’ closeted homosexuality is sympathetically dealt with, though Brendan’s incipient romance with the daughter, Liz (Eva Birthistle), of the institution’s tough but fair governor (Michael York) is just too schematic.
Part of the film’s problem is that it tries to overload the story with meaning at the expense of character. Dialogue is often over-explanatory, as in Brendan’s exchange with Liz: “I was brought up to hate the English. I had to come here to learn about love … I had it both ways, just like Oscar Wilde!” Quite.
Still, Hatosy is good in the lead, starting out as an unsmiling teenage fanatic and slowly morphing into a more rounded young man. A scene with York in which he finally agrees to postpone the republican fight until the end of the war is much more powerful emotionally than any of those among the borstal boys.
Other players are well cast, with the exception of York, who overdoes his period-Brit accent. Irish locations are not always convincing as East Anglia, though Ciaran Tanham’s lensing does capture its bleak, wintry light. Production values and period detail are OK on a budget, and Stephen McKeon’s score is a help in bringing some warmth to the drama.