Sixteen-year-old Dubliner Brendan Behan is apprehended while trying to smuggle explosives for the Irish Republican Army from Ireland to Liverpool, England, in the early years of World War II. He is convicted and sent to Borstal, a facility for young offenders in East Anglia, England, where he learns about love and grief.
Inspired by the autobiographical novel of the same title by Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy tells the story of 16-year-old Brendan who, after having been caught while trying to smuggle explosive material for the IRA from Dublin to England, is sent to the Borstal institution in rural Britain. There, under the lenient watch of Borstal director Joyce, Brendan must deal with his challenging fellow inmates, who include a sexually aggressive and bullying Brit, a Scotsman, a Polish Jew and the likeable Milwall, a self-proclaimed ''queer.'' Also engaging Brendan's attention is Liz, the artist-daughter of Joyce who, with the help of the inmates, establishes a studio on the Borstal grounds. Various activities like football and the mounting of an ambitious production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest engage the Borstal boys, but they still want out. When Brendan masterminds an escape from the facility, land minds on the nearby beach bring tragedy. The loss of lives pains Brendan, but his emotions are passionately fired by Milwall, who leaves Borstal for fateful Naval duty, and by Liz, who comforts Brendan when Milwall becomes another victim of the war.
Shawn Hatosy, who ably manages an Irish brogue plus the occasional stutter given his character, is convincing as the Irish republican Brendan, though less so as the sexually ambiguous Brendan. Danny Dyer sparkles as outgoing Milwall, whose colorful role as Brendan's gay best friend with thespian leanings mercifully falls short of cliche. Vet actor Michael York as Joyce has little to do but look authoritative and compassionate, and Eva Birthistle as his daughter flits and flirts provocatively among the yearning boys of Borstal.
Director Peter Sheridan, like award-winning brother Jim Sheridan, has deep roots in theater but shows a sure hand in directing film. Sheridan delivers a very polished and disciplined production, the kind of good, but hardly exceptional, work that deservedly floats from film festival to film festival, eliciting approval from audiences and critics alike. But Sheridan's main gaffe here is to make the Borstal correctional facility seem like a cross between a British public school and a boys camp, not exactly an environment from which anyone wants to escape. Apparently there are no course requirements, but plenty of sports, theater, freedom to come and go and hardly any supervision or punishment. Even the commissary meal, veggie included, looks quite tasty. For the sake of credibility and drama, Sheridan needed to fashion a more damning environment.
This handsome and assured coming-of-age tale, inspired by Brendan Behan's autobiography, is the kind of film you respect like crazy but can't love. Shawn Hatosy as the young Borstal inmate fired by nationalistic Irish politics and inchoate homosexual urges convinces more as a politically beasty Borstal boy. In spite of decent acting all around, this melange of fierce pro-Irish politics, a World War II backdrop, the British boys reformatory that is more resort than prison and the slow-simmering cauldron of emerging gay and heterosexual urgings doesn't deliver the impact a bolder, more focused effort might have achieved.