Michael Collins

on October 11, 1996 by Joseph McBride
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   The film won the Golden Lion at this September's Venice film festival; Liam Neeson was awarded Venice's Volpi Cup for best actor. Opens in six cities Friday. After the Irish Troubles began anew in 1969, Hollywood's old stereotype of the Irish as lovable drunks with mouths full of clover gradually gave way to a baneful new stereotype of snarling, wild-eyed terrorists. Thankfully, over the past several years, those cartoonish images have begun to be supplanted by more nuanced and complex cinematic portraits of the Irish and their family branch "one parish over" in America.
   The enlightened tax-incentive policy of the Irish government has stimulated a renaissance of indigenous filmmaking in Eire while also encouraging an influx of American and British co-production funding. As a result, such Irish directors as Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan have become major players in the world cinema. But even more important in stimulating a fresher and more balanced perspective on Irish history and culture has been the tentative--and now unfortunately stalled-- movement toward peace talks between the British and the Irish. With the British and American governments coming to accept the necessity of diplomacy with Sinn Fein, it no longer is so easy for filmmakers to paint the Irish with overly broad brushstrokes of derision or demonization. Once Gerry Adams was welcomed at the White House, that breakthrough made even so recent a Hollywood movie as 1992's "Patriot Games" seem archaic in its one-sidedly anti-Irish caricature of the tragic complexities of the British-Irish conflict. The more three-dimensional treatment of the Irish that led to such international hits as Sheridan's "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father" and Jordan's "The Crying Game" now has made possible a multidimensional exploration of volatile Irish political issues in two new films, Terry George's "Some Mother's Son" and Jordan's "Michael Collins." The 1981 IRA hunger strike is movingly depicted in "Some Mother's Son" through the perspectives of two strikers' mothers, one a staunch IRA supporter (Fionnula Flanagan) and the other an initially apolitical opponent of sectarian violence (Helen Mirren). The historical roots of the contemporary dilemma are dramatized with powerful immediacy in "Michael Collins," a sweeping romantic biopic of the revolutionary figure who forced the British empire to the negotiating table in 1921.
   As Tim Pat Coogan wrote in his 1992 biography of Collins, "Collins' career is a paradigm of the tragedy of modern Ireland: the suffering, the waste of talent, the hope, the bedeviling effect of history and nomenclature whereby one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Over the years, various filmmakers have wanted to tell the story of this extrordinarily gifted and conflicted man, including John Huston, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and Michael Cimino. That a native Irish filmmaker has finally succeeded makes it worth the wait, although even Jordan is somewhat overwhelmed by the thorny complexity of the historical events he depicts.
   Liam Neeson is perfectly cast as the man known to his comrades as "The Big Fellow," a charming ladies' man whose ruthless guerrilla tactics blended with altruism and a fervent love of country. "Michael Collins" is most gripping in its first half, which shows the bitter fighting and intrigue between the Irish rebels and British forces, the latter including the paramilitary Black and Tans. The most vivid sequence depicts the horrifying events of "Bloody Sunday," November 21, 1920-- the mass killing of British spies by Collins' men, followed by the British machine-gunning of an unarmed crowd at a Gaelic football match. Finely detailed period recreation by production designer Anthony Pratt and costume designer Sandy Powell, the muted color and propulsive camerawork of cinematographer Chris Menges, and razor-sharp editing by J. Patrick Duffner and Tony Lawson plunge the viewer into the awful maelstrom of the Troubles.
   Although the film runs 132 minutes, the latter part still feels at least half an hour too short as it unsatisfyingly sketches in the events surrounding the outbreak of Civil War in 1922, climaxing in Collins' assassination. Most damagingly, Collins' negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, relinquishing the Six Counties of the North in what he hoped would be a "stepping-stone to the Republic," takes place offscreen and is explained largely in voiceover. This pivotal and tragic event cries out for dramatization, but the film fails to convey an adequate understanding of Collins' pragmatic decision or the anguish he felt over it.
   Most viewers will have a hard time following Jordan's overly hasty and oblique narrative of the tortuous events of the Civil War and the Machiavellian intrigues of Collins' rival, Eamon de Valera (played with brilliant fidelity and precision by Alan Rickman). The many oversimplifications elide some of the fascinating ambiguities of Irish history. The film's implication that de Valera helped engineer Collins' death and its unambiguous depiction of the killing by a young sniper sidestep the tangle of controversies that still surround the assassination: who ordered and who opposed it, and who actually fired the fatal shot.
   Perhaps there could be a director's cut on the horizon with a fuller treatment of those events and less emphasis on the tepidly obligatory romantic subplot involving Julia Roberts as Collins' inamorata Kitty Kiernan. But "Michael Collins," which Jordan describes as a "creation legend" for modern Ireland, is provocative indeed, particularly because it comes in the wake of the breakdown of peace talks. Warner Bros. has evinced some trepidation over how and when to release this Geffen production in the U.K. and Ireland, but one hopes the distributor will not shrink from the opportunity to give Ireland's history its due. Starring Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman and Stephen Rea. Directed and written by Neil Jordan. Produced by Stephen Woolley. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 132 min
Tags: Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman, Stephen Rea, Directed and written by Neil Jordan, Produced by Stephen Woolley, Warner Bros, Drama
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