Neil Jordan revisits the central concerns of “The Crying Game” — sexual identity and Irish/English political strife — to reduced effect in “Breakfast on Pluto.” Helmer’s second adaptation, after “The Butcher Boy,” of a novel by Patrick McCabe relates the “Candide”-like odyssey of a flighty, gorgeously feminine young man through the ’60s-’70s British Isles as he searches for the mother he’s never known. Despite numerous surface pleasures, including a beguiling pop soundtrack and presence of rising star Cillian Murphy in the lead role, dramatic shortcomings spell a mixed overall reception, with OK B.O. in more sophisticated markets.
Whereas in “The Crying Game” Jordan mixed the dicey elements of mysterious sexuality and political violence with artistically and commercially combustible results, similar territory is traversed less inventively this time around. Overriding limitation is a principal character who grows from deprived youth to beautiful cross-dressing hooker without acquiring dimensionality; he’s a leaf in the wind who floats from one circumstance to another in the most emotionally superficial way, complaining only when something strikes him as too “serious.”
If one decides, then, not to take the film too seriously, there are diversions to be had, beginning with the immediacy with which young Patrick Braden (Conor McEvoy, then Murphy) embraces and flaunts his gender proclivities in the Church-dominated Ireland of the early ’60s. Placed as an infant on the doorstep of Father Bernard (Liam Neeson) in Tyreelin, Ireland, Patrick is raised by a tough foster mother, begins donning dresses and lipstick from an early age and inevitably raises the hackles of his Catholic school superiors, particularly when he writes a short story in which he impudently (but plausibly) makes himself the illegitimate sprig of Father Bernard and the latter’s attractive blond maid. His sense of flagrant Otherness eventually leads him to take the nickname “Kitten.”
Pic adopts a fanciful, visually playful approach to the unlikely eventualities of Patrick’s life once he becomes a slim androgynous teen. His first amorous encounter of significance is with a tough-looking troubadour (Gavin Friday) who falls for him, disastrously puts him onstage as an Indian squaw and even more perilously installs him in a coastal trailer home where he hides artillery intended for the IRA.
Sporting a mop of curly hair and a spiffy wardrobe on a budget, Patrick continues his picaresque adventures in glam-rock London, where he’s heard his Mitzi Gaynor-lookalike mum — his “Phantom Lady” — has been spotted.
After casually slipping into streetwalking, he’s taken in by a kindly, middle-aged club magician (Stephen Rea), who treats him well and makes the boy part of his act. This relationship seems so mutually pleasing it comes as an unwelcome surprise when Patrick unprotestingly allows himself to be abruptly dragged away by a mate from his old life. But that’s the way he is — a man with no will of his own, going wherever the current takes him.
Although some dramatic seeds have been quietly planted, a huge act of violence that soon follows comes as a shock, one that Jordan handles superbly. With the raised stakes, expectations are also increased that the film, and its main character, will broaden its wings in the final stretch, but the extended wrap-up is emotionally conventional.
Moving in stages toward total female impersonation by the final act (but never revealing an interest in actually becoming a woman), Patrick maintains an adamant superficiality that makes him a rather frustrating figure on which to hang a whole movie. Murphy’s exceptional looks make him agreeable enough to watch, but the thesp’s voice acquires a hoarse rasp when artificially pushed to higher registers. More problematic is the character’s apparent lack of inner growth and self-knowledge; if an eventful life journey doesn’t produce maturity or just simple insight, it doesn’t feel terribly worth it.
Secondary characters come and go, with Rea making the best impression as the only person whose influence on Patrick’s life seems essentially favorable.
Pic’s mood is predominantly set by the pop favorites that turn up with jukebox-like regularity. As a collection of tunes for a soundtrack, it’s fabulous; as accompaniment to the action, the song choices are as often too-on-the-nose as they are inspired.
Division of the screenplay, co-authored by Jordan and McCabe, into 36 identified chapters probably serves to make it seem even more episodic than it is. For all the sexual subtext, pic is very chaste, with nothing overt shown onscreen.
Physically, the film looks great, with Declan Quinn’s lustrous lensing enhancing nice contributions in the production, costume, makeup and personal effects departments.