Borstal Boy (2000)

D: Peter Sheridan
S: Shawn Hatosy, Danny Dyer

Good adaptation of Brendan Behan's autobiographical tale which charts the experiences of a young Irish boy imprisoned in a British borstal during WWII. A staunch republican on a bombing mission, young Brendan (portrayed by American Shawn Hatosy) initially rejects all attempts to reach him by the relatively benign Governor (Michael York) and especially a British sailor convicted of theft (Danny Dyer). But as the narrative progresses he comes to see things differently. As his relationships with other inmates begin to grow and he is exposed to a world he has literally never known, he eventually comes to realise the ambiguity of his personal and political beliefs. A fascination with Oscar Wilde and a slowly growing homoerotic attraction to young Dyer forces him to redefine himself and see the world from a different point of view. He also finds himself entranced by the Governor's daughter (Eva Birthistle), a free-thinking artist who encourages him to explore his creative side, something which will eventually result in a short but brilliant career as an author and playwright (though this is not part of the actual film).

Borstal Boy is a film with simple ambitions. It is well crafted in every respect. It is capably performed by a sincere cast, solidly written by Nye Heron and director Peter Sheridan 'inspired by' the original novel, lushly scored by Stephen McKeon, crisply photographed by Ciarán Tanham, and nicely decked out by production designer Crispian Sallis, art director Michael Higgins, and costume designer Marie Tierney. It is a solid piece of cinematic storytelling which makes good use of all of the materials at its disposal. It is not especially visually exciting, but it escapes the trap of being stagebound or excessively TV movie-ish as so many Irish films are largely because of its pace and variety of action. There are many familiar prison-camp scenes, including the usual personal, political, and sexual power struggles between inmates, escape attempts, and even some 'unity through sports' action (when the prisoners take on the local army in a rugby match). There are also many references to the context of the action set by the war itself, embodied in the Canadian and Jewish boys among the population, and the uneasy truce struck between Brendan and the authorities at the end of the film, so it is not without a sense of politics or precedent.

A UK/Irish co-production, the film may represent some kind of meaningful meditation on relations between the countries on a deeper level, but this is not its most interesting or pronounced feature (and anyway, the setting sixty years ago makes such apposition somewhat fanciful). It is more deliberately concerned with the shift in perspective which makes Behan into a writer, and, interestingly, particularly the questions of sexual orientation which crystallises the issue. Like in the recent The Talented Mr. Ripley homosexuality (or even bisexuality) is not so much an 'issue' as it is a metaphorical anchor around which many of the concerns of the film revolve. Whether or not this has anything to do with Ireland or even with Brendan Behan himself is beside the point. The film successfully articulates its point of view in what amounts to one of the most curious rites-of-passage films we've seen in a while. It is a film about embracing of alternative readings both of one's self and other people, and as such it works well regardless of what other meanings are ascribed to it.

Hatosy is physically ideal in the lead, gruff and unforgiving without falling completely into the stereotype of the Irish thug. He does a creditable job with not only the accent, but the halting stutter which characterises young Brendan in the early scenes, and delivers a performance of great subtlety in spite of the outward appearance of obstinance. He is neatly matched by Dyer (Human Traffic) as the homosexual sailor, again playing a role with more complexity than the outline suggests. Support from the rest of the young cast is generally good, with Birthistle (Drinking Crude, Saltwater) making a fetching upper class English girl. Michael York adds a veteran face to the proceedings although his character is lacking the kind of detail needed to make him stand out dramatically.

Overall Borstal Boy is a very solid, very watchable first feature for director Peter Sheridan. It doesn't stretch its audience, but it is not without interesting, coherent, and articulated thematic threads. Though unlikely to inspire wide admiration, it is very much the kind of medium-budget film which will find extensive distribution via television, which may, in the final analysis, be its most natural home despite the formerly fearsome reputation of this particular author and tale in Irish literary culture.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.