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With: Shawn Hatosy, Danny Dyer, Eva Birthistle, Lee Ingleby, Robin Laing, Michael York, Mark Huberman
Written by: Nye Heron, Peter Sheridan, inspired by the book by Brendan Behan
Directed by: Peter Sheridan
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 91
Date: 07/04/2000

Borstal Boy (2002)

1 Star (out of 4)

Poetry Demotion

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I can't claim to be an expert on the late Irish writer and playwright Brendan Behan, but if I were him, I would have been exasperated and insulted by the new film Borstal Boy, based loosely on his book and -- even more loosely -- on his life. Borstal Boy represents the worst kind of filmmaking, the kind that pretends to be passionate and truthful but is really frustratingly timid and soggy. And even though the film is viewed as prestigious and respectable, it bothers me far more than a movie like Resident Evil, which has the guts to simply be what it is. The trouble begins right away when 16-year-old Brendan (Shawn Hatosy) attempts to smuggle a few sticks of dynamite on board a ship by taping them to his body -- striking a blow for his beloved Irish Republican Army. He stands in line waiting for his bag to be inspected, and he looks for all the world like he's trying to look like he's not hiding something -- he's practically quivering. Director Peter Sheridan (brother of Jim My Left Foot Sheridan, who co-produced) apparently assumed that we wouldn't be able to understand that Brendan was nervous in this scene, so he whacks us over the head with his nervousness. The trouble is -- if the inspection officer were anything smarter than a tree stump, he'd be able to notice Brendan's peculiar behavior. The whole scene is compromised, and the opening credits have only just finished rolling.

The rest of the movie does not improve. Brendan gets caught and sent to "borstal," a kind of prison for boys. He meets a quasi-homosexual named Charlie (Danny Dyer) and learns to love him, as well as the English kids there. He also falls for the warden's daughter, Liz (Eva Birthistle), a pretty blonde who for some reason is allowed to hang around with horny teenage criminals. The inmates even stage an all-boy version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, complete with kissing, and the usual missed cues and falling-down scenery. Borstal Boy ends when Brendan has apparently learned to love all the world and will no doubt go straight home, marry a sweet girl, never touch a drop of drink, and become a famous writer. The real Brendan, however, apparently raised hell, sneered in the face of banality, wrote like a demon, and drank himself to death in 1964 at the age of 41. That Brendan is nowhere to be seen in Borstal Boy. Sheridan directs this movie as if he were shooting an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," trying to impart decency and goodness on everyone. He scrubs and polishes away anything slightly resembling an edge. He's forced Brendan to love everyone in an openly homogenized way, just as he's forcing the audience to follow every claptrap, brain-dead tearjerker routine in the book.

When Brendan and his pals escape their prison and one of their number gets blown up by a landmine, Sheridan plays the scene out as if we'd never seen anything like this before. He goes to slow motion, cuts to the landmine, back to the kids running toward it, back to the landmine, back to the kids running, ad nauseum. When the explosion, finally -- finally -- comes, he cuts to Brendan's incredulous face. Cue the music, louder, louder, and still louder. We get it already! Though there's no way to really know, my money rides on the belief that the real Brendan Behan would have hated, hated this gutless movie. I hate it too.

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