Michael Collins

(Neil Jordan, Ireland/USA, 1996)


Neil Jordan's film is a bloodless and unmemorable exercise in hagiography. As a project, the biography of this controversial figure in Irish political history must have promised a winning combination of action, ideas and romance. On screen, it falls completely flat.

Although it moves along with confidence and evokes a sombre, elegiac tone, the film simply never coheres into a commanding drama. As a key player in the saga of his country's politics, Collins (Liam Neeson) resembles a character from a Ken Loach film: at first the advocate of necessarily violent, terrorist tactics in the face of British oppression, he later becomes the spokesperson for a more moderate and negotiated position.

This change on Collins' part invites the most terrible betrayal – a tragic conclusion which Jordan bravely announces at the very beginning of the film.

Those looking for a fair, even-handed depiction of the bloody struggle between Britain and Ireland will be disappointed or disconcerted. The British are merely the shadowy, evil oppressors on the margins of this frankly partisan account. As Jordan stated on a recent visit to Australia, for him the film explores "a debate between the Irish", not the politics of Britain's involvement.

With such potentially intelligent and rich material, why doesn't Michael Collins work? It is always hard to convey the intricate manoeuvres of party politics on screen – so much of the action comes down to hushed, cryptic meetings in dark chambers or corridors – and even harder to turn them into drama. Jordan's solution is to mesh the political with the personal, via Collins' relationship with Kitty (Julia Roberts).

But it is in the romance department that the film really comes unglued. There is no spark at all in the banter between Neeson and Roberts, and little thrill or intrigue in the 'eternal triangle' played out between them and Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn). Jordan is obviously trying hard to include and honour a female presence within this largely male story, but the character of Kitty offers precious little scope.

MORE Jordan: The Butcher Boy, The Crying Game, In Dreams, Greta, The Company of Wolves

© Adrian Martin December 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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