Brendan Behan, the Irish author and playwright who was almost as famous for prodigious drinking as he was for writing (he died, at 41, in Dublin in 1964), wrote Borstal Boy about his teenage experiences in a British reform school, where he was sent in 1940 for smuggling explosives into Liverpool as a supporter of the Irish Republican Army. The movie adaptation of Behan’s coming-of-age autobiographical tale, directed by Peter Sheridan, who also cowrote the script with Nye Heron, is a quaint, romanticized rendering. In this soft and unmoored period piece, political passions, sexual desire, boy-on-boy violence, and World War II are all presented with the same measured delicacy, as if shot through a carefully nursed pint of Guinness.
This makes for lovely scenes of young men playing rugby but little investment in the story’s main conflict, which is the confused attraction young Behan (Shawn Hatosy) feels for his reform school friend Charlie (Danny Dyer), a sailor who is openly gay (yet, remarkably, barely harassed). Then again, Behan is also attracted to Liz (Eva Birthistle), daughter of the school’s warden (Michael York), in one of those tediously progressive English father-daughter-prep-school duos without which filmmakers might have to come up with new ideas. An unregenerate, lip-curling dorm bully gets what’s coming to him; a sad Polish Jewish bunkmate serves as a symbol of tragedy. Mostly, Sheridan loves to photograph the East Anglian countryside.
With his bruised-apple features, Hatosy is working steadily these days in roles that involve raised fists. (He’s the woman-beating, yuppie-scum hostage in ”John Q.”) That the actor gets to kiss a man and try an Irish accent in ”Borstal Boy” might be viewed as a personal advance. ”Borstal Boy,” though, gains no new ground as a book-to-screen adaptation.