"Borstal Boy" (the book) is a classic example of great Irish storytelling. Some fact mixed with a bit of exaggeration and a dollop of warmth told with a wonderful manipulation of language to bring you to the final destination of truth and awakening. All best done while having a pint of Guiness or Stout. The journey is the best part, because you're made to believe you're traveling with friends and people you want to know, but one never loses sight of the total story.
So here we have a 16 year-old Irishman who thinks he knows everything he needs to know about the British and what scum they are. Blindly trusting his "compatriots" in the IRA, he smuggles bomb-making materials into England during WW2, thinking he's doing a great thing. He's caught, tried and sent to jail, during which he learns the British are not the complete bastards he's been lead to believe they are, and that his pals back in Ireland really don't really care that much about him. He forms friendships in juvenile hall (Borstal is the British version of it) with some of the English boys he's in with as well as the guards, finds other boys and guards are weasels and not to be trusted by anyone, and does his time as if it were a vacation of sorts. There are even hints in the book that the friendship between Brendan and Charlie Milwall, his best mate in Borstal, was more than that...but it's presented in such a subtle and beautiful way, you really can't say for sure. But that's the perfection of this book -- how the language is used to hint at things without saying them outright, letting you join in on Brendan's journey and build your own version of what may or may not have happened.
That said, this movie is a disgrace to that book. I honestly cannot believe it even got made, not with the script they used. It is the most blatant example I have ever seen of "caring" people setting out to make a "grand statement" about how we're all human beings and we should just get along...and doing it in the most insipid way possible. What was lovely in the book is made crass and simplistic and false in this movie. Brendan never had a problem with Charlie being gay. He even walked behind him during exercises and commented to himself on the clean line of his neck. But in the movie, Brendan snarls at Charlie to keep away from him and puts him down for being a poof. In the book, he snipes at a Catholic Priest about the church's support of English control of Ireland; in the movie, he makes his grand speech against oppression at a magistrate, which diminishes it greatly. In the book, he's already literate and aware; in the movie, he's presented as someone who needs to have his intellect expanded. It just goes on and on...and that's not to mention the ludicrous made-up scene where Brendan escapes and leads some fellow borstal boys straight into a minefield so they can be blown to bits and he can feel bad...which only makes him look like a complete idiot. And the addition of a pretty girl -- at an all boys' jail?! Do these filmmakers have ANY idea of how WRONG that is? To be blunt, inept is a kind way of putting it.
Now Shawn Hatosy does an all right job as Brendan. Sometimes his mumbles are hard to follow and he seems to be mainly one-note for much of the movie, but he's not an embarrassment. And Danny Dyer does well with a badly written role. Michael York is given little to do but be there, which is a criminal waste of a fine actor. No one else makes any impression.
As for the script -- it was "Syd Field 101" and below average for that, and Nye Heron only proves that being Irish is no guarantee of being a good storyteller. And the co-writer/ director, Pete Sheridan...he shows no talent for either writing or directing. Fact is, I think the only reason he got to make this movie was because he's related to Jim Sheirdan (someone who's also willing to twist the facts in his "fact-based" movies, but at least knows how to do it well).
The only excuse I can find for this movie to have been made is...well, there is no excuse. Anyone who likes this movie has never read the book it's based on. Hell, they've probably never read anything more demanding than "Goodnight Moon." But for those who care about good storytelling, DO read the book. Please. And trust me -- your memory of it will be ten times better than anything you might get out of this drivel.