Michael Collins (1996)

D: Neil Jordan
S: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Julia Roberts

Neil Jordan's strident epic charting the turbulent years of the early twentieth century in pre- and post-independence Ireland may not have found an audience at the U.S. box-office, but, not unexpectedly, ranks among the biggest box-office earners of all time in its home country. Raising all kinds of awkward questions not only about Irish history, but about the definition of an 'Irish' film, this multi-million dollar Warner Bros. production has its generic roots in the epic biopic, a sub-genre of the historical drama which had been relatively dormant since Richard Attenborough's Gandhi and Cry Freedom. In offering its central figure as something of a symbol for larger questions within Irish history and politics in general, the film inevitably found itself embroiled in immediate controversy both at home and abroad which threatened to overwhelm consideration of its qualities and flaws as a work of cinema in its own right. Jordan, trading on the international standing granted to him by films such as The Crying Game and Interview With the Vampire, has nonetheless found himself in the unique position of being able to explore such weighty themes in conjunction with the more personal ones which have featured in all of his work with a budget far in excess of anything that any Irish-born director has had to date. The film is big, blustering, and very powerful, but may not necessarily appeal to everyone.

It begins with the primal scene of recent Irish history, the defeat of the rebels at the hands of British troops in 1916 following the ill-fated proclamation of the Republic. Historical and geographical compression and distortion begin almost immediately, with the streets of Dublin less than faithfully re-created to provide a more cinematic battle scene, and Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) and Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) seen standing side by side in a line-up within minutes of the surrender. Dramatically, this establishes the relationship between what will become the two central figures in the patrimonial drama which unfolds between the lost 'good' father of a would-be modern Ireland (Collins) and the 'bad' one who actually ruled it (de Valera). This is, of course, an interpretation of history, and a thematic simplification. It works, but the danger is that it will be accepted as historical fact. This type of problem dogs the film, and was the basis of much of the criticism, especially in the British press.

Yet Michael Collins is not a textbook, it is a dramatic interpretation of a moment in Irish history which has emotional and political resonances for both its creators and its intended audience. It is a tragic story, and one which debates the merits and demerits of both belligerence and compromise. This has unmissable links with the political climate of the late 1990s, and, in its own way, Jordan's film is an attempt to heal old wounds in the Irish psyche and invite a communal mourning for all of the hatred and lost opportunities of the past eighty years.

On a more superficial level, it is a wonderfully made, exciting, and invigorating film. Its first half proceeds at a blistering pace, and though it compresses a great deal of history in doing so, it careens from set piece to set piece with the energy of a serial adventure. The second half gives way to an inevitable slowing-down which matches the more complex and layered events which transpire as Collins becomes a politician rather than a fighter and finds himself mired in a different, more greyscale world of round-table manoeuvring and hidden agendas.

Towering literally above it all is Liam Neeson. His thundering, powerful performance is perhaps less intricate than his turn as Oskar Schindler, but no less worthy of plaudits. Though he physically does not resemble Collins (supporting actor Brendan Gleeson does, and he played the role in the made-for-TV drama The Treaty), he gives him the larger-than-life stature which mythology has always granted the man himself (though, as the film points out, one of Collins' most powerful weapons was his ability to appear anonymous and inconspicuous during those years). He is backed by good supporting performances from many actors including Ian Hart, Brendan Gleeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea (a feature of almost every Jordan film since Angel), and Charles Dance. Ian McIlhenny has an amusing cameo as a Northern Irish intelligence officer who meets a controversial fate.

In the crucial role of Eamon de Valera, Alan Rickman seems constipated rather than careful and restrained as de Valera was, and his performance is partly responsible for the ease with which the story settles into a simplistic battle between good and evil. De Valera becomes more of a weasel than he needs to be, and leaves a dangerous wound in the centre of the film. The quotation from the man himself upon which the film concludes is proof of Jordan's intention, but again lends itself to JFK-like dangers of interpretation. The role of Kitty Kiernan has been exaggerated, again for dramatic purposes, and she is ably played by Julia Roberts, but the focus on the triangular relationship between Collins, Kiernan, and Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) allows Jordan some moments of romantic interlude and personal conflict during which to draw breath. But it re-treads some of the old clichés of Irish-themed drama, as men fight over a woman whose very soul seems to represent that of Ireland herself. It is not as obvious as some, but this aspect is there, and will prove an unfortunate distraction for academic writing on the film in years to come.

The film is beautifully photographed by Chris Menges and scored with gusto by Eliot Goldenthal. All of the technical credits are up to par, and far exceed anything produced within the island of Ireland in the past century. This gives Jordan even greater freedom to explore the cinematic space he has created, and many scenes reflect his surrealistic style of filmmaking. The careful use of filters and lighting cast emotional inflections on otherwise prosaic moments in the script, from the scenes where Quinn scurries about in the underground sewers to that where Neeson sits in a hotel room bathed in red light streaming through huge, conspicuous curtains which cast it upon him. Jordan's concern as a director has always been with the schism between desire and necessity where men find themselves lost and hesitant between the literal and the abstract. Though so rooted an historical subject as this might have been assumed to produce a more literal film, Michael Collins is as much a metaphysical rumination on the nature of destiny and masculine responsibility as any of his previous literary or filmic works. Collins emerges not so much as an enigma (he's hardly that), but a man cursed by the need to do what he sees as right in fighting injustice, only to find that the rules change as quickly as he can break them. As the film winds its way towards its inevitable conclusion, the audience feels a sick empathy with him not because of history, but on a human level, which is at the heart of its great power.

Casual audiences may nonetheless have difficulty understanding the chain of events as they are portrayed here. The film moves so quickly that it requires some foreknowledge of circumstances and a willing suspension of historical narrative to the demands of personal drama before one can appreciate what it has achieved. It is also violent and quite uncompromising as a vision of armed struggle, which some may find offensive. It is certainly not romantic, and a far cry from previous versions of this tale on film (such as the infamous 1936 film Beloved Enemy, which even offered a happy ending). It makes few compromises to traditionally nationalistic visions of recent Irish history, and it is more powerful as an appeal to sanity than to jingoism. Some will label this 'revisionism', and they may have a point. But in the final analysis this is a powerful, provocative, and engrossing film which represents an important intersection between Hollywood mainstream filmmaking and a more intimate 'Irish' style of which Jordan has become the leading figure (after a rocky start in the early 1980s, at which time he actually began work on this script). It is well worth seeing and will remain an important contribution to Irish cinema regardless of whether or not it will be universally fondly remembered.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.