Brendan Behan, the Irish playwright/novelist who drank himself to death at 41, was once a borstal boy himself - unwilling resident of a British reformatory - and "Borstal Boy" is supposedly an account of his time there. But it's really a crock: a coming-of-age boys' prison film that has only a fanciful link with Behan's life. The film is a bastard grandchild of Tony Richardson's 1962 "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" set in a drizzly East Anglia landscape of barren trees and glowering lads.
The credits don't even say that the film is based on Behan's memoir, but rather that it's "inspired" by it. Indeed, the cliched scenes director Peter Sheridan and his co-writer, Nye Heron, have concocted here - which include a tragic bisexual love triangle between Young Brendan (Shawn Hatosy), the prison governor's daughter Liz (Eva Birthistle) and gay-sailor inmate Charlie Millwall (Danny Dyer) as well as the rugby match between the borstal boys and the British army - are obviously melodramatic concoctions.
Hatosy played the young bully in "John Q," and he's not bad here. Better is Dyer, who makes a genuinely brooding and romantic figure out of Charlie. The rest of the film is made up of stock figures - chief among them the unfortunate Michael York playing a sympathetic governor's role that probably could only have worked if it were played, for laughs, by John Cleese. Behan's memoir is great material for a film - rowdy, brawny and lyrical in the best Irish sense - but Sheridan has settled for a lugubrious romance, interspersed with fights, sermons and drag sequences.
When Brendan vanishes into mist in the movie's last shot, it's an anti-climax. Actually, he vanished long before.
"Borstal Boy" Opens Friday. No MPAA rating - adult (sensuality, language, violence.)
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times