Michael Collins

By Cunneen, Joseph | National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Michael Collins


Cunneen, Joseph, National Catholic Reporter


Suddenly there are movies opening that might lure people away from their chairs in front of the TV set. "Michael Collins" (Warner Brothers and Geffen Pictures), writer-director Neil Jordan's epic of the last years of Ireland's charismatic freedom fighter and statesman, is more exciting than Monday night football.

Even pacifists disturbed by scenes of Collins' IRA comrades, in their earlier incarnation, executing British intelligence officers and police spies, will be moved by the brooding climax of the film, in which the 31-year-old commander-in-chief of the new Irish Free State is gunned down by an unknown young assailant who believed the peace treaty Collins had negotiated with England the year before was a sellout.

Despite the availability, even in paperback, of Tim Pat Coogan's biography, Collins is still largely unknown to U.S. audiences. If the movie becomes a success, it will be largely on the strength of Liam Neeson's bravura performance as its hero.

Jordan begins with a bang, the British artillery blasting away at Dublin's General Post Office in 1916. The captured 1916 leaders include not only Collins but his best friend, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), and Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), future president of the republic. The failure of the Easter Rising taught Collins that head-on attacks on the British were only suicidal gestures. Henceforth he would concentrate on hit-and-run attacks against those giving intelligence to the British authorities.

Neeson makes Collins a likable if hotheaded swashbuckler, faithful throughout to Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), who seems first to prefer Boland and has little to do in the movie but smile winningly at both. Although Jordan does not minimize the brutality of the killings Collins ordered or dehumanize its victims, his concern to reach a mass audience makes too much of Neeson's debonair ability to escape over rooftops at the last minute - something more appropriate for Tyrone Power in "The Mark of Zorro."

It is true that, undisguised, the real Collins pedaled his bicycle past British soldiers through dangerous Dublin streets, but the movie descends to shallow romanticism when it places him with Kitty in their hotel, playing with a rose while the murders he directed were being carried out.

Thomas Flanagan, Irish-American author of The Year of the French, reminds us that "both Collins and de Valera would have loathed the terrorism practiced by the current IRA," and Collins was realistically aware that his "irregulars" could not hold out much longer. But we need to see more of his change of heart.

The limitations of Jordan's script are signaled by the omission of the complex treaty negotiations with England that Collins signed, while recognizing that he had probably also signed his death warrant. Of course, such deliberations are notoriously hard to dramatize, but some scene of genuine inner conflict would have made it harder to dismiss the final result as an adventure movie.

The aesthetic quality of its excitement, however, is notably enhanced by the work of its cameraman, Chris Menges, who provides complex images of autumnal Dublin, landscapes and explosions. It also benefits from Alan Rickman's performance as a prim but steely de Valera. The movie shows him as deliberately giving Collins the thankless task of negotiating with the enemy; then "Dev" champions the diehard republican rejection of the treaty, plunging Ireland into civil war.

Finally, although specialists will argue over historical details of "Michael Collins," no one who values good movie-making will fault the liberties Jordan takes with the presentation of Collins' murder at its conclusion. We see a young man (Jonathan Rhys Myers) with Collins in a bar the night before, then with a bewildered de Valera and finally, with the camera looking down from a high hill, coolly expressionless in the conviction of his cause, an emblem of the fanaticism that is still alive. …

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