Michael Collins – Film Review by Shane Larkin
Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Neil Jordan
Stars: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Julia Roberts
Many of us can be forgiven a certain measure of sentimentality when it comes to this film. Neil Jordan’s flawed epic and the hoopla surrounding its release was something of a cultural event twenty years ago; if you didn’t have at least an auntie-in-law who showed up as a background extra at some point, you knew someone who did. The Irish Film Censor gave it a PG certificate on its theatrical release (12 for the video) because of its historical importance, despite being rated 15 in the UK and fairly worthy of that classification at the time. My enduring memory of the film is being shaken by what was essentially one of my first experiences of consequential big screen violence as a child; people set ablaze, beaten, shot at point blank range, images that don’t register with quite the same visceral tremor in today’s cinematic climate left a startling impression on my childhood. Fitting enough for what amounts to a portrait of one man’s disengagement with the violent action that had in some ways come to define him.
To be re-released in cinemas on March 18th to coincide with the film’s 20th anniversary, as well as the 1916 commemorations, this is an opportunity to consider Jordan’s historical biopic of the much-revered Irish revolutionary (played by Liam Neeson) in a new light. Dubious in its historical accuracy, it traces Collins’ struggle for Irish independence, from the Easter Rising of 1916, to the rallying and organization of his fellow guerrilla warriors, to the negotiation of the controversial Free State treaty that would plunge Ireland into a bloody civil war and ultimately lead to his own assassination at the hands of his countrymen. Anthony Pratt’s lavish sets and Sandy Powell’s costumes still retain their transportive effect, from the hanging gas lamps to the leghorn hats, artfully captured by cinematographer Chris Menges’ earthy tones and painterly framing.
The first victim of historical dramatisation is typically nuance, and that is certainly the case here. As it flits from one pivotal series of events to the next over the course of six years, certain aspects of story and characterization are glossed over at the expense of clarity, dramatic weight and narrative momentum, and there is a sense that the point is often clouded or missed entirely at times. There is of course the dead weight of the Kitty Kiernan romantic subplot and Julia Roberts’ much maligned performance, which it has to be said has more to do with Jordan’s script offering next to nothing in the way of meaningful dimension for the character than it has to do with Roberts defiling the Irish accent. Jordan employs the trappings of a vintage Hollywood love triangle (Aidan Quinn is Collins’ best friend and co-strategist Harry Boland) but it never strikes the right tone and really should have been omitted entirely.
De Valera essentially serves as the villain of the piece, probably the film’s most notoriously contentious aspect, and the mere casting of Alan Rickman veers the portrayal awfully close to outright vaudeville from the beginning. Warranted or not, it’s hardly a well-rounded depiction and Rickman could have done so much more with the part if allowed the breadth to do so. As for Neeson; he was 44 at the time of making this, while Collins was 25 in 1916. But this can be forgiven by virtue of it being almost impossible to imagine anyone else embodying the character in the same way. Outside of the core group you have a roll call of familiar Irish faces who were right on the cusp of fame and prestige at the time, or at least a few minutes on Father Ted.
Today, Collins is generally celebrated for his marriage of effectiveness and pragmatism, though I suppose it depends on who you ask. To many, a man of genius who embodied the best of the nation. Others are less kind. What’s undeniable though is that Collins was a man who was immortalised and ennobled by the frozen moment of his death, the complexities summarised in the legend of him. It’s not often we’re reminded to consider the humanity of 1916’s cloudy pantheon of heroes and the unhuman shadows that are often made of them, and Jordan’s film doesn’t penetrate the surface as deeply as we might like (nor should it be confused for anything resembling an historical document), but if its re-release allows discussions of these men and these events to re-emerge in a more wide-ranging way, it can only be a good thing. Especially on a year like this, when the issues of 1916 become distorted by the state and its institutions, and tenuous links to these men are claimed and exploited for vested interests. Maybe it’ll prompt us to consider for ourselves how the events should be commemorated. Just don’t cite it in your history essay.