Brendan, they hardly know ye. Self-professed "drinker with a writing problem" Brendan Behan was many things in his short life: playwright, prisoner, brawler, and a bear of a man with an obscenity-spewing gob and (despite his heroic boozing) a razor-sharp wit. Little of that is in evidence here. Peter Sheridan’s film is "inspired by" Behan’s autobiography, a remembrance of the 16-year-old IRA recruit’s stint in youth prison after being nabbed with dynamite in Liverpool. In Borstal, the aspiring hard man soon finds that those he thinks he hates — specifically, the English and homosexuals; more specifically, an English homosexual — are people he could love.
Fear not that this consummate Irishman is played by a rangy American kid. Shawn Hatosy affects a credible Dublin accent and even pulls off a longish stanza of Gaelic verse. Sheridan’s problem, rather, is a puzzling and inappropriate reticence: the narrative and the dialogue give scarcely a hint of the enormous, forceful personality Behan would become. Granted, we’re seeing him before he’d written a word or tasted a drop of uisce beatha. But like Alan Parker’s adaptation of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Borstal Boy trades its source text’s flashes of levity for a mannered coming-of-age tale. Ciarán Tanham’s cinematography is striking but his muted palette is symptomatic of the film’s larger understatement — a timidity that’s totally at odds with Behan’s boisterous character. He was a man who never pulled punches; one wonders why Sheridan does.