MICHAEL COLLINS (UK, 1996) *** 1/2
"Michael Collins" is an ambitious, successful reconstruction of the last years of its eponymous hero (in movie terms), who is also a hero in terms of Ireland's history. Not for every Irish person or faction however. The picture has caused controversy in the United Kingdom and Ireland, while in America it has been very well received, with no flare-ups. Public and the critics, rightly shying away from past Irish politics -- a maze for which very few outsiders are qualified to pass judgment -- have looked at the film qua film, as the portrait of an exceptional leader about whom little is generally known. Even Irish-born Liam Neeson ("Schindler's List"), admits that before he got the part he had only vague notions about Collins.
If nothing else, this work introduces to the masses of filmgoers a historical figure of capital importance. It does it in a controlled, thoughtful and, for most of us, credible way, accurate within the bounds of cinema's possibilities. That's no mean service. It reaches beyond its many artistic or "entertainment" values into expanding one's knowledge of history.
That's what movies have often done, including the biographical ones ("biopics") that presented mostly schlocky, romanticized and dubious screen lives that had little to do with realities. Still, to mention only one country, it is through motion pictures that most people outside Mexico got their first acquaintance with figures such as Pancho Villa, Juarez or Zapata.
To help orient the viewer, here is a sketchy chronology of matters Irish in the early 20th century.
Irish author and film director Neil Jordan has given us, among others, such excellent pictures as "The Company of Wolves," "Mona Lisa," and "The Crying Game." "Michael Collins" was planned and nurtured for 13 years. It follows its protagonist from the Easter Rising to his assassination.
The opening sets the tone of violent action, excellent production values and superb camera work. Cinematographer Chris Menges (Oscars for"The Mission" and "The Killing Fields") films fluidly without calling attention to his skills, lights the sets naturally, without artificial fill-ins. The word "exquisite" comes to mind, paradoxically, since so much drama and tragedy are shown.
What is also very subtle is that in the early scenes of fighting, surrender, brutality and executions we get our first but almost last contrast between the British and the Irish accents. Only Irish tones will be heard, until Churchill picks "the elite of the British Secret Service" to fight the fighters. Even then, the most poignant parts are the fratricidal, Irish vs. Irish ones.
>From the Rising we cut to 1918. Collins and his best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) have been released from prison. The eloquent Michael renews his incitement to resistance. New action follows, supenseful, vivid,energetic and free of false gung-ho heroics.
Collins was 28 then. Liam Neeson was 43 when the film was made. Some suspension of disbelief is in order, and perhaps - granted that the Irish have great facility with speech- it also applies to the self-assured, quick-thinking and -planning Collins shown. No Method hesitations, aahs and ahems here. Even so, one gets caught up in Collins's humanity, struggles and toughness. He sends a message to the Irish police :" Any collaborating with the Army of Occupation will be punished by death. You have been warned."
Collins - it is historically true - was the inventor of a special kind of guerrilla warfare. Neil Jordan says that his tactics were copied by independence movements around the world, from Mao in China to Shamir in Israel. Why not add Vietnam and the resistance (and collaboration) in Nazi-occupied Europe too?
The acting, a tad romanticized, is uniformly impressive. Collins-Neeson towers over all the performers, he IS the film, with all the others as supporting cast. Among them, two stand out. The ambiguous, manipulative Eamon de Valera who became Sinn Fein's president in 1918, thrice prime minister with short interruptions (1932-1959) and President (1959-73). This best known of Irish politicians is played with marvelous, dour shiftiness by Alan Rickman, as a near-villain. His thorn in Collins's flesh is one of the main lines the plot follows. There is also Stephen Rea ("The Crying Game") as the mole Ned Broy, perfect as the humble "little man" who risks and loses his life to pass on information to Collins. Broy is a composite figure of three characters.
Setting aside controversial aspects (one of them being a car bomb that some say did not exist at the time), a minor lack in the movie is that we see of Collins mostly the activist-politician-leader while we don't really know what makes him tick as a person. Of course, this dimension would have lengthened the film considerably. There's also a small annoyance as the private Collins is limited to his affair with Kitty Kiernan and to this rivalry with best friend Harry for the lady's love. While Kitty did exist, the cutting to parenthetical sentimental scenes is intrusive and superfluous. Julia Roberts plays her with charm and a good Irish accent at first. Later the accent disappears. Later yet it becomes American.
The overall movie and the specific Collins role are strong enough to resist small objections. Collins, as a warrior turned statesman and peace-maker, becomes exponentially a likable, truly heroic figure who affects us viscerally and intellectually. Perhaps he is best summed up when he says of the British " I hate them not for their race [. . . } but for what the've done to us by breeding hate in us."