Director-writer Neil Jordan is trying for something new with Michael Collins: a serious historical film with the serious history kept to a minimum. In telling the tale of Collins, a key figure in what became the Irish Republican Army in the early part of this century, the director of The Crying Game and Interview With the Vampire seems so mindful of the possibility that Americans think ”the Troubles” are what happen when you eat too many Olestra chips that he tries to give us all the action and bravura with little of the Irish Catholics-versus-English Protestants context. Luckily, the Irish filmmaker gets a classic performance out of Liam Neeson in the title role; as a reluctant rebel-turned-statesman, Neeson combines the earnest intensity he radiated in Schindler’s List with the two-fisted swagger he brought to Rob Roy.
There’s no stately scene setting at the start of Michael Collins, no misty flashbacks showing us how a wee Mickey Collins became Michael the bellowing freedom fighter. Not even wasting time for opening credits, Jordan plunges us right into the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish dissidents clashed with British military forces in Dublin. Jordan and cinematographer Chris Menges lift their cameras over the riot, first letting us see the messy melée and then picking out our protagonists. Among the muddy Irish faces we spot Neeson’s Collins and Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall) as his best friend, Harry Boland. Quivering with grim primness off to one side is Alan Rickman (Sense and Sensibility), playing rebellion leader (and future head of the aborning Irish Free State) Eamon De Valera. And look, there’s The Crying Game‘s Stephen Rea, as a twitchy-eyed spy.
With this exciting scene, our sympathies are dictated to us: The British are faceless oppressors, the Irish noble sufferers moved by pain and sorrow to strike back in order to win their freedom. For this sort of thing, Neeson is invaluable, since he’s got the face of a racked intellectual and the body of a swashbuckler. In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, Collins and De Valera wrangle over the purpose and methods of the ”Irish Volunteers,” and their debates are fast, furious, and, in their cranky, nitpicky way, frequently funny. (Collins is in favor of a pummeling hit-and-run strategy; De Valera is just as vengeful but more cautious, shrewdly mindful of how such violence will play out in world opinion.)
Lest a single popcorn eater begin to get bogged down by anything approaching philosophical debate, however, Jordan distracts us with Kitty Kiernan, a saucy lass played with twinkly eyes and a soft brogue by Julia Roberts, who here deploys her wide, ”Don’tcha just love me?” grin for its most extensive workout since Pretty Woman. Both Collins and Boland fall in love with Kitty, a smart, tough working-class girl whose own opinions on her country’s plight remain unexplored. Roberts is utterly charming — early on, she has a beautiful scene in a dimly lit parlor room, singing an Irish air with tremulous sincerity as Neeson and Quinn gaze at her, transfixed.
But Roberts’ presence is never tied dramatically to the main plot, and the romantic competition between Collins and Boland — which ends up destroying their friendship — is hokey and contrived. In a way, the most interesting relationship in the movie is that between Collins and De Valera. We’re shown that Collins’ colorful brawniness gave him the edge over De Valera’s subtle conniving in the hearts of the Irish people, yet once he replaced his competitive comrade as a spokesman, Collins deflated as a leader: He needed the heat of battle to keep himself stoked.
Michael Collins was a project dear to Jordan’s heart; he wrote the script 13 years ago, revised it repeatedly, and continually tried to get it produced. Perhaps the commercial success of his lively but empty-headed Vampire led him to think most moviegoers wouldn’t sit still for a film with the moral ambiguity that had probably drawn him to this subject in the first place. For whatever reason, Michael Collins is a troublesome movie, a film about a religious war in which religion is almost entirely absent; a flick that gives us our kicks with thrillingly shot terroristic violence while paying lip service to pious antiviolence sentiments. ”You’re good at it — bloody mayhem,” says Harry to Michael early on. Neil Jordan is good at it too — so good that the blood drowns the heart of his movie. B+