Borstal Boy (2000, UK / Ireland)

Borstal Boy

I remember reading Borstal Boy as a young teenager and being completely captivated by its bawdy, rollicking style and the irreverence and passion of its author, Brendan Behan. That memory makes this lukewarm adaptation of his autobiography so much more disappointing. Behan was larger than life, and this reduces him to something akin to a minor rebel in a coming-of-age story at an English boarding school. Or perhaps I’m getting the character in the book mixed up with the boozy, ribald celebrity that he was to become before drinking himself to death at 41.

Anyway, back to the film. A junior member of the IRA, Behan is caught soon after landing in Liverpool during World War II in possession of some explosives.  At just 16 and too young to hang, he is sentenced to several years in a British borstal. While he’s there he grows up, realising that the people whom he regarded as the enemy (the English and queers in particular) were not much different to him. I now can’t find my treasured copy of the book, but I can’t remember Behan (played by an American, Shawn Hatosy, for some bizarre reason) being caught in a love triangle with his gay friend, Charlie Milwall (Danny Dyer, who features also in Mean Machine), and Elizabeth, the Governor’s daughter (Eva Birthistle), who has come to live at the borstal to keep her safe during war. I can’t remember the inmates putting on The Importance of Being Earnest and lots of other stuff, either. Perhaps I have to re-read the book, but seems unlikely that Behan would have been able to have so much unsupervised time with a Governor’s daughter (or any woman) in 1939, and the film reaches its peak of silliness when Behan gets punished by the Governor for seriously assaulting one of the other boys – notwithstanding the fact that the other boy, a rapist, was trying to rape Elizabeth who had strayed into their dorm and Behan was protecting her honour).

The film has a sentimental, nostalgic feel, like Chariots of Fire, and we’re left with the impression that Behan, having found his sensitive side and fostered his talent for writing, would return to Ireland a better man, destined only for good things. It doesn’t give a hint of what was to come – including further charges of shooting Police in Dublin the year after his release. Behan, I’m sure, would have had something to say about his life being depicted in such a tame manner, and it wouldn’t have been polite. Read the book instead.

Borstal Boy #2 Borstal Boy #3

Posted on May 16th, 2009 at 6:29 pm. Updated on December 11th, 2009 at 9:00 pm.

#249 in the Top 500

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