Shawn HatosyDanny DyerEva BirthistleMichael York
Borstal Boy
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Peter Sheridan
Writer: Brendan Behan, Nye Heron, Peter Sheridan
Actor: Shawn Hatosy, Danny Dyer, Lee Ingleby, Robin Laing, Eva Birthistle, Michael York, Mark Huberman
Language: English, Irish [in one scene]
Country: UK, Ireland
Format: 91 minutes
Website category: British
Review date: 3 March 2011
While watching it, I thought this was an interesting little movie. It's nice. I enjoyed it. The main character's a hardcore IRA radical who gets arrested on a bombing raid to Liverpool in 1941, but then again he is only sixteen years old and he gets plenty of hard learning over the course of the film.
Then the end credits informed me of something that completely changed my view of the film. It's based on an autobiographical novel of the same name from 1958. It's by an Irishman called Brendan Behan, who really was sent to Borstal in East Anglia and wrote what by all accounts is an outstanding novel about his experiences and what they taught him. This was later adapted for the stage and had a successful run on Broadway, winning the 1970 Tony Award for Best Play. All this made the film much more interesting for me. It's easy for people to get heated and political about an IRA movie, especially in the British Isles, but I'd go a long way to see the historical truth about how people really felt and what was happening.
However then I made the mistake of reading comments on the film by people who've read the original book. They think it's a disgrace. They all adore Behan's novel, but they think the movie's throwing out pretty much everything about it for the sake of a simplified, movie-friendly story. Admittedly some of them still like it despite this, but they seem fairly clear that it's barely even a shadow of the original.
To be fair though, the film says it's "inspired by" the novel, which I haven't read. I liked it.
It's educational. I knew a bit about borstals, the IRA and England during World War II, but it was interesting to see them put together like this. Borstals are youth prisons. When young people were convicted of crimes, they got sent there. The first one was established in a village called Borstal in Kent in 1902 and they ran in Britain for another eighty years until the 1982 Criminal Justice Act replaced them with youth custody centres. They were officially supposed to be "educational rather than punitive", but it's also been said that "more often than not they were breeding grounds for bullies and psychopaths." I can believe it, but the one in this film doesn't look too bad. The guy in charge is well-meaning. His men are unfriendly, but at least they're not violent. Meanwhile the boys have some unreconstructed attitudes but are otherwise mostly okay, except for that knife-wielding sex offender. Behan could have done far, far worse.
It's hard to know how to take the political incorrectness. Yes, that was a more Neanderthal age even before you take into account that these are both convicted criminals and teenage boys, but I get the impression that the real Behan was far more open-minded than this film would have you believe. However the result of this is a character arc. At first the boys are saying things like "there are no queers up North" and denying that Oscar Wilde was a real Irishman because he got sent to prison for buggery. However Danny Dyer is playing a gay thief who becomes an important friend to Behan (played by Shawn Hatosy). This is both patronising and an insult to both the book or its author, but it makes for quite a good film.
The softening of Behan's anti-English sentiments would seem to be real, though. At the beginning, he's planting bombs in England during wartime and says things like "as a prisoner of war, it's my duty to escape". He really sees himself as a soldier. However there were also real soldiers fighting at this time and the boys are regularly shown wartime newsreels to keep them up to date on what's happening out there.
What can I say? I'm sure I'd have been harder on the film if I'd read the book, but I haven't and I liked it. The boys' production of The Importance of Being Earnest is funny. (Note the way Danny Dyer's character never speaks in falsetto, but uses his own masculine voice to underline the fact that he's a gay man when kissing his male co-star.) The escape is memorable, although it's not saying much for the intelligence of all involved. There's a surprise or two.
The acting's also good. Americans might have trouble with the accents, though.
Overall, it's a film I'd recommend. It seems clear that the novel is an even stronger recommendation, but even so this is a pretty good British-Irish period drama that gave me some new historical perspectives on things I hadn't known very well before. It's perhaps less funny than you might expect from a film based on a novel by an Irishman, but it still made me laugh sometimes and I believed in the characters and their situation. I liked it. It works. Even if the script's full of inaccuracies and inventions, it managed to feel true to me.
"You didn't know my mother. I used to dream of being an orphan."