In Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, we learn nothing of the Irish revolutionary's early life, and we get but scant patches of the long, tragic history that impelled him to invent urban guerrilla warfare. Instead, Jordan throws us immediately into battle. In this case, it's the last moments of the Irish Republicans' ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916, the "terrible beauty" of Yeats's deathless poem. From the smoke and rubble of Dublin's General Post Office, heavily shelled by the British, the beaten rebels emerge, grimy and bloodied, hands in the air. But the defiance in their faces, especially that of Liam Neeson's strapping Collins, tells us that they (and we) are in for a long siege.
Indeed, the Troubles continue, offscreen, eighty years later.
Michael Collins--the movie--had problems of its own on the way to your local multiplex. The tough, charming figure of Collins, the Irish Republican Army's first commander-in-chief and for a spell "the most wanted man in the British Empire," has long been compelling to filmmakers as varied as John Huston, Michael Cimino and Kevin Costner. But studio bosses have always shied away from romanticizing a man some regard as a terrorist. Jordan wrote his script way back in 1982, but it took the box-office success of The Crying Game and Interview With the Vampire to finally sell Warner Bros. on his Collins project.
For a political biopic written and directed by a highly politicized Irish Catholic, Michael Collins is not quite the unvarnished propaganda piece Prince Charles, Maggie Thatcher and the ghost of Oliver Cromwell might have imagined. Like the character that catapulted him into the public view, Oskar Schindler, Neeson's Collins is a man of many parts--only one of which is his hatred for a British regime that has kept his country in shackles for 700 years. There's a lilt, but also a certain bewilderment, in this Collins's voice when he describes himself as "minister for gun-running, daylight robbery and general mayhem"--as though his gifts were also a curse, the bloody ferment of his times, as much an agony as an inspiration.
Eventually, Jordan gives us a paragon and a martyr, but Neeson never assumes the comic-book strut of Mel Gibson in Braveheart or the mindless, mow-'em-down glee of a Schwarzenegger action hero. Our Mick is full of derring-do--stealing into police headquarters to get a look at secret records, bluffing his way through a midnight raid with an empty pistol--but when his boys are assassinating British secret agents in the misty streets of Dublin, he always grasps the "terrible" part of the revolution's "terrible beauty." He can also be devious and stubborn.
The faults in Jordan's film lie elsewhere, beyond Neeson's stirring, nuanced performance. The buddy-buddy relationship between Collins and his best friend on the ramparts, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), is sheer pop Hollywood, and the notion that the other important drama in Mick and Harry's lives is their spirited (but ever honorable) competition for the same comely lass, fiery Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), is not only a conceit but a falsification. Collins's biographers usually point out that he was quite a ladies' man--wooing many ladies--and several of these writers address the long-held rumors that Collins was actually homosexual. Jordan ignores the first issue and dismisses the second with one veiled double entendre.
More crucial, of course, is the filmmaker's unsupported implication that Collins's strange assassination--in 1922, at age 31--was somehow the work of Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), who was to become Ireland's rather stuffy and autocratic prime minister and president, serving until 1973. Comrades-in-arms in 1916, traditional tactician De Valera and pioneer guerrilla Collins feuded over power and methods in the 1918-1922 war against the British. They broke altogether when De Valera and his ministers refused to recognize the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922--which Collins helped negotiate. But there has never been any claim that De Valera sanctioned Collins's killing--until now.
The film's other huge gap might have been explained, but Jordan declines. How is it that Collins, man of action and committed firebrand, suddenly sails off to London, shakes Churchill's hand, and compromises with his former enemies by creating the Irish Free State in the south instead of holding out for a fully independent republic encompassing the northern counties?
"Best we could do" and "exhausted by war" are the rationales Jordan rattles off on Collins's behalf, but the mystery remains unexplained.
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If you can set such fictions and omissions aside, Michael Collins is a pretty exciting two hours in the dark. On a relatively small budget of $28 million, Jordan has reproduced the charged atmosphere and the bitter melancholy of Ireland in crisis, and after three decades of stops and starts, he has finally brought to the movies a figure only vaguely understood by even the most fervent wearers of the green.
Meanwhile, Jordan's cinematographer, Chris Menges, should be a shoo-in to win an Oscar for his dark, damp views of a dangerous city and its sudden shocks of violence. Clearly, neither Jordan nor Menges is interested in glorifying killing: When the nascent IRA men shoot a British spymaster in a hotel room, there's no more cheap movie pleasure in it than when the Brits remove the shattered spectacles of the legendary James Connolly, then execute him by firing squad. All war is a tragedy, and these filmmakers know it. Call it homage or call it theft, but Jordan even uses that Godfather-style cross-cutting between acts bloody and acts tender, to memorable effect.
As Julia Roberts's brogue comes and goes, Neeson once more proves himself one of the most accomplished actors in moviedom. In the corners of the film, Jordan provides some vivid supporting characters: Rickman's De Valera is a fascinating portrait of rigidity and ambition, and Stephen Rea is brilliant as a jittery Royal Irish Constable converted to a cause by the steaming Republican rhetoric of Mick Collins. In the end, Jordan also gives us a chilling vision of past and present, in the person of the sullen, nameless boy (Jonathan Rhys Myers) who winds up putting a single bullet in Michael Collins's head from high atop a green hill in Cork. The echo of that gunshot, sad to say, has never subsided.
Michael Collins. Written and directed by Neil Jordan. With Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman and Julia Roberts.