With Michael Collins, director Neil Jordan either resisted making a blatant piece of historical propaganda or he failed to pull off such a propaganda campaign. His rousing but flawed epic about the Irish revolutionary suggests the latter.
History’s Michael Collins used deadly guerrilla tactics to bring the equally murderous British empire to the bargaining table. The partition of Ireland that Collins then negotiated led to civil war. A courageous figure to some, Collins is to others nothing more than the father of the IRA.
Jordan’s Michael Collins is far less complex. Instead, Collins is a romanticized, tragic figure who did what was necessary to liberate Ireland and then became a victim of the warfare he helped create. It makes for entertaining drama, but unconvincing history.
Much of Michael Collins makes you wish the story were as forthright as Jordan claims. Cinematographer Chris Menges captures Ireland’s turbulent times – the battles, the hills, the dark corners of the night – with lighting and colors that alternately shimmer, saturate and seduce.
And Liam Neeson, in the film’s central role of Collins, gives a performance of swashbuckling charm. At the film’s start, his Collins is more of a political prankster than a criminal rogue. Whether scurrying from one safe-house to the next or staging wrestling matches with friends, Collins tempers his imposing physique with a playful laugh.
Cinematographer Chris Menges captures Ireland’s turbulent times with lighting and colors that alternately shimmer, saturate and seduce.
But that laugh could also turn into a vicious bark, particularly when the violence escalates and the killings increase. Collins laments over the “bloody mayhem” he has wrought until a friend dryly notes, “Did it ever strike you that you’re good at it?”
That comment is about as close as Jordan gets to the incertitude of Collins’ place in history. It is clear that the man left a legacy of violence, but his ultimate motives are yet to be understood. Jordan, however, offers Collins a convenient excuse. In a scene midway through the film, Neeson declares, “I hate them [the British] for making hate necessary.”
The film’s supporting roles range from the wonderful to the wasted. As Eamon de Valera, president of the struggling Irish Republic and betrayer of Collins, Alan Rickman delivers a delicate and appropriately ambiguous performance. Aidan Quinn as Collins’ best friend, Harry Boland, and Jordan regular Stephen Rea as an informant within the British intelligence, are equally superb.
But as Kitty Kiernan, Collins’ real-life fiancee, Julia Roberts is unnecessary at best. Their misguided love story is force fed into the movie’s revolution plot.
In most reality-based epics, historical fact and creative license remain separate and distinct, but in Michael Collins, one is passed off as the other. Jordan clearly aims to convince us of Collins’ greatness, but history isn’t that simple. It’s unfortunate that the movie is.