Neil Jordan's Michael Collins opens with Collins' trusted aide Joe O'Reilly (Ian Hart) speaking of his departed leader: "He never did what anyone expected." But, in fact, Collins (Liam Neeson) does pretty much what is expected of a movie hero: He fills the screen with noble bluster; he aches for freedom; he fights heroically. When he believes the time has come to segue from war to peace, he's the noblest of peacemakers. Collins--the Irish guerrilla tactician and anti-British warrior who died in 1922, just two months short of his 32nd birthday, at the hands of the Irish Republican Army--is a martyr-in-motion. The film is his (belated) canonization.
Jordan has wanted to make a movie about Collins--"The Big Fella," as he was called--since he first began directing movies in the early '80s. From a purely technical point of view, it's probably a good thing he waited this long: His moviemaking skills have never been sleeker. As a piece of period craftsmanship, Michael Collins is phenomenally successful. Using mostly Dublin locations, Jordan and his great cinematographer Chris Menges and production designer Anthony Pratt barrel us right into the action. The film is rigorously worked out yet impassioned; we don't get the feeling we're dawdling down memory lane. When Jordan uses actual black-and-white newsreel footage from the era, the effect isn't jarring because his re-creations have the same gravity.
And yet instead of drawing us in, the romanticism of Michael Collins keeps us emotionally at bay. Jordan delivers a more conventional story than the great, wrenching material warrants. Even if you are unfamiliar with all the political intricacies of the Irish rebellion leading up to the Collins-engineered 1922 Irish Free State Treaty partitioning off the north, Jordan's hero-worshiping grandiloquence strikes a note that, while not altogether false, lacks resonance. Because blood still flows in Northern Ireland, we can't simply look at the film as a dirge from a bitter past. Inevitably, we also look to it for a grounding in the horrors of the present--as a way of understanding not only the historical roots of the Irish tragedy but also the psychology of political terrorism.
And it is in this realm--the psychology of violence--that Jordan's film falls the shortest. In effect, Jordan is saying that Collins is a force of history who stands outside the normal sway of psychological understanding. He's epic. How did Collins and his compatriots feel about the spillage of innocent blood? How charged up were they by their mayhem? Jordan breezes past this stuff and instead asks us to deify Collins as the true and neglected savior of his country. His glory is twofold: He's the architect of terrorist tactics that brought the British to the negotiating table; and he's the man who, in the cause of peace, stood up for the Irish Free State Treaty that nevertheless set off a civil war.
The thrust of Jordan's view of Collins is that "The Big Fella" would not have condoned the violence of today's provisional IRA. This is how Jordan attempts to create a mass audience hero out of a genius of tactical terrorism whose methods remain all too close to home today. But who can say what Collins might have condoned now?
Jordan is enamored of the classical arc of Collins' life--the warrior renegade who reforms and is destroyed by his own renegades. It has a pleasing tragic quality. He's also enamored of Hollywood-style plot-making and grandstanding. (Parts of the film play like a '30s gangster shoot-'em-up.) Collins is set up in dramatic opposition to both Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), his mentor and the president of the renegade Irish Republic, and Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), his closest friend and rival for the affections of Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts).
In Jordan's view, Collins is the shining knight to de Valera's prince of darkness. While Collins is a student of his people, the drawn-featured de Valera, who was known as "The Long Fella," is a student of Machiavelli. (What Jordan doesn't point up in a postscript, perhaps because it would lend comfort to the enemy, is that de Valera, who instigated the post-Treaty civil war supported by the IRA, ended up declaring the IRA illegal when it turned against him for failing to carry out his promise to establish an Irish republic that would include Northern Ireland.)
As for Harry, he's like one of those good-time-bad-time shoulder-punching buddies who shows up in Westerns opposite the stalwart hero. And, as in a lot of those Westerns, the buddies seem to be going through courtship rites. Harry and The Big Fella are the film's true romantic couple; by comparison, the scenes with Kitty are pro forma. When Harry ultimately sides with de Valera, Collins gives his chum his best scorned, "Et tu, Brute?" look. Later they grieve: Harry tells Collins, "I miss the old way it used to be," and Collins counters with, "We were too dangerous together." How can Kitty compete with all this manly mournfulness? She's the film's romantic relief, except there's no romance and no relief.
Jordan wants to create a tragic figure in Michael Collins, but he doesn't give us enough about him to sift through. When Collins says of the British, "I hate them for making hate necessary," we're meant to take him at his word. Wasn't there anything besides righteous virtue behind his wrath? (In real life, Collins liked to take a bite out of the ear of his defeated wrestling opponents.) Collins is converted into a kind of Irish Prometheus--which is also how the journalist Tim Pat Coogan depicts him in his massively researched Collins biography Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland. He is "humanized" for us by being reduced to a kind of glorious naif--although in reality he read voraciously Synge, Wilde, Yeats and Shaw, and also wrote voluminously. (In the film, Kitty remarks that he never writes letters to her, which is pretty funny if you know that an entire volume of their correspondence is in print.)
Collins is such a grand-scale character, we never even get a sense of the sheer arduous dailiness of his life--the way he bicycled everywhere on his missions in his pinstriped suit without being recognized by the authorities. Despite all the valiant I-am-Spartacus moments, the sequence where we feel closest to Collins, where we understand best what he's fighting for, is a small one: Entertaining Kitty and her family in their parlor, he spins out some Irish doggerel and then breaks into a song.
It's a charming, folkloric moment, and Neeson seems buoyed by the offhandedness of it. He isn't weighed down by the importance of what he's doing. Neeson is one of the few actors who has the dynamism to carry epic movies, but, as in Schindler's List, he plays his heroes on--at best--two levels when three or four are called for. Except Jordan isn't calling for any more levels. Neeson plays Collins the way Jordan sees him--righteously, innocently. Neeson can be great fun to watch, but if he doesn't perk up a bit, he's going to end up in dead-weight Harrison Ford territory.
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The character with the most crosshatches is Rickman's de Valera. Despite his positioning as the scapegoat of the piece, de Valera comes across as such a complex figure that he takes over the movie whenever he's on screen. He's like a full-bodied wraith and, whether writing letters from prison or seated at the head of his banquet table of assassins, he has the luminous, slightly deranged look of the true revolutionary. He hauls his humorlessness around with him like an anchor. (In real life, de Valera not surprisingly lived into his 90s. Bile is a preservative.)
Compared to an overblown hero-hugging mess such as Braveheart, Michael Collins is a work of art. Jordan has a rare talent for creating hushed nocturnal landscapes. The moody-blues night town scenes in Michael Collins have his distinctively lyrical horror-movie feel, and he sets up a sense of free-floating menace. You never know when someone's going to get it in the face. But all this artfulness can also seem like an evasion, a way to etherealize the subject. Jordan is impassioned about the idea of making a movie about Michael Collins, but when he gets right down to it, he settles for the same old hero's halo. Collins was betrayed by so many people in his life. Did Jordan think that lifting the halo would constitute yet another act of betrayal?
Directed by Neil Jordan; with Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea and Ian Hart.