Such is the catalog it presents of violence, vendettas, betrayals, vengeance, assassinations and insidious factionalism that “Michael Collins” intriguingly comes off as political history writ in the mode of the gangster film. Intelligent, enormously accomplished and seriously problematic, Neil Jordan’s ambitious account of the activities of arguably the central figure in Ireland’s painful, bloody fight for independence from the British Empire has a great deal to offer serious, discerning audiences. But there is also enough that doesn’t work to prevent the film from generating the sort of reviews that will make this a must-see for the target audience that turns out for select class pictures, especially at a time when historical subjects rep such a hard sell.
Staggeringly well-made, the film possesses the “Reds” problem, except more so, in that it is a highly thought-out rendition of a difficult and, by now, obscure political struggle of the first quarter of the current century involving names unfamiliar to all but specialists. It follows the familiar pattern of portraying passionate emotions against a backdrop of epochal events, but this particular story carries the additional burden of connecting to an unfortunate situation that persists to the present day, namely the never-ending conflict in Northern Ireland, even as it succinctly illuminates how this state of affairs came into being.
Having harbored this dream project since the early ’80s, when he first wrote the script, Jordan has clearly anticipated all of these potential barriers to audience acceptance. To a surprising degree, he has made “Michael Collins” a film of tremendous action, incident and momentum. So many explosions, machine gunnings and executions take place that one could easily imagine being in Chicago of the ’20s rather than in Dublin just a few years before. And there is a rather muted, “Jules and Jim”-style triangular love story at the center of things that, whether it is historically true or not, feels somewhat artificially imposed on this otherwise brutal, very tough-minded picture.
Michael Collins was, in essence, a pioneer guerrilla warrior, a deliberately mysterious, rather subterranean figure who, after the failed Easter Rising of 1916, realized that any conventional fighting against the British was doomed to failure. Instead, he raised the Irish Volunteers, a ragtag band of ordinary citizens who staged stunning ambushes and shockingly successful hits on the Brits, who had occupied Ireland since the 12th century.
The terrible opening bombardment of Irish freedom fighters by the English in 1916, and the subsequent execution of most of the ringleaders, bluntly establish the brute force with which obedience to the Crown was sustained.
Two years later, Collins (Liam Neeson), one of the foot soldiers, is released from jail, only to embark at once upon renewed political activity by giving impassioned speeches and pursuing his self-appointed position as Minister of Mayhem for the Irish cause. A “by whatever means necessary” kind of guy, Collins finds his opportunities for troublemaking vastly increased when a government informant, Ned Broy (Stephen Rea), gives him access to the names of British officials, enabling Collins and his men to embark upon a successful assassination spree. The Brits, of course, respond in kind, and both sides keep upping the ante of violence until the conflict begins taking down noncombatant civilians.
Although Jordan lays in the history and politics clearly enough, the emphasis through much of this is on scheming, plotting and derring-do, which the director stages in deft, swift strokes that call to mind the real-life gangster dramas about to be played out, and subsequently filmed, on the other side of the Atlantic within a few years. But pic takes a couple of turns that trip it up somewhat dramatically.
For a considerable time, Collins and his best friend, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), share the attentions of a lovely young lass, Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), in a three-way relationship that seems just a tad too care-and-guilt-free for Irish folk of the time, no matter how rebellious.
When the president of the renegade Irish Republic, Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), takes Boland to the United States to help raise money for the cause, Collins finally captures Kitty’s heart, marking the beginning of the fatal split between Collins and Boland and, eventually, between the skilled military operative and his more extreme superior.
The whole final section, which sees the lead-up to the hero’s death intercut with his fiancee shopping for a wedding dress (the second montage in the film to resemble a famous one in “The Godfather”), brings the picture up a little short.
It is unfortunate when such a difficult, ambitious film doesn’t quite pay off after building up so much solid credit, but that is the case here. It is possible that the nature of the history under consideration is as responsible for this as any other single factor. Certainly there are strong efforts here from the many talented hands involved. Jordan’s screenplay is smart, colorful and densely packed, while his direction moves things along at a breathless pace. Neeson is a compulsive dynamo as Collins, with the actor seizing his part with a passion and boldness utterly in keeping with the character’s approach to life and his cause. Rickman effectively plants the seeds early on that things might not end well between De Valera and Collins. Rea registers effectively as the surreptitious double agent, while Quinn and Roberts are winning even as they play roles that remain insufficiently defined in the writing. Ian Hart scores as Collins’ right-hand man to the bitter end.
After nine years of working as a director following his illustrious career as a cinematographer, Chris Menges is back manning the camera for Jordan again, and his work is nothing short of sensational. Parched with earth tones, Menges’ images are seriously artful yet tremendously vital, and it is great to see a master doing what he does best. Anthony Pratt’s lavish original sets and redressings of contempo Dublin also help bring the period vibrantly to life, as do Sandy Powell’s splendid costumes. Editing by J. Patrick Duffner and Tony Lawson is fast-paced and clear.
Along with the lensing, the other truly outstanding accomplishment is Elliot Goldenthal’s score, which superbly enhances the action while constantly surprising with its inventiveness and impressive avoidance of musical cliches.