Screenplay : Neil Jordan
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Liam Neeson (Michael Collins), Aidan Quinn (Harry Boland), Alan Rickman (Eamon De Valera), Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan), Stephen Rea (Ned Broy)
It took Irish director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Interview With the Vampire") twelve years to get his romantic biopic "Michael Collins" to the screen. It went through a number of other hands, but through persistence and a bit of luck, Jordan finally secured $28 million from producer mogul David Geffen. Geffen allowed him complete artistic freedom to paint his own portrait of this mythical Irish revolutionary who was one of the original founders of the Irish Republican Army. The result is a rousing, violent, quite extraordinary epic, made all the better by Jordan's own passion for the man.
After being a part of the defeated Easter Uprising of 1916 and spending two years in a British prison, Collins developed new methods to fight the British. In the process he created an army by virtually inventing urban guerrilla warfare. On November 21, 1920, known as "Bloody Sunday," the IRA assassinated 19 British spies in cold blood on the streets of Dublin. It was feats like this that eventually brought the British government to its knees, and allowed the Irish a chance at freedom for the first time in 700 years.
In an ironic and tragic turn, Irish president Eamon de Valera (the always brilliant Alan Rickman) ordered a reluctant Collins to negotiate the treaty terms with the British government. De Valera knew Collins was going to fail, and when he returned home with only a promise for a free state instead of the sought after independent republic, Collins was lambasted by his own former comrades.
The result was the Civil War of 1922 between the supporters of the treaty, and those who wanted to tear it up and go back to war. Collins knew that major change couldn't happen in one swift stroke -- he understood the free state treaty was just "a stepping stone" toward the republic, and for that belief his own people assassinated him at the age of 31.
Liam Neeson was the only man Jordan ever wanted to play this role, and for good reason. Neeson portrays the title character with vigor and energy, combining the smooth elegance of his performance in Schindler's List, with the robust masculinity he displayed in "Rob Roy." Collins, nicknamed "The Big Fella," was as comfortable roughhousing with his best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), as he was assassinating people in the streets of Dublin.
It is this seeming contradiction that makes him such a controversial historical figure, and Jordan carefully portrays him in a manner the audience can sympathize with. However, Jordan can be faulted for almost concentrating too much on Collins' love affair with Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts) and the jealous rivalry between him and Harry Boland. While it helps humanize him, it also distracts from the largest picture.
When it comes to Collins' violent nature, Jordan shows him as a man forced to extremes by a brutal and uncaring British government. His boldly self-proclaimed talent for violence and mayhem are the very skills he needed to get the British to listen. Jordan unflinchingly shows the violence on both sides of the battle, never so gruesome as when a group of armored British cars drive into the middle of a Gaelic rugby match, and start machine-gunning the unsuspecting crowd.
Jordan is a unique visual director, and he and cinematographer Chris Menges capture the muted gray days and bluish nights with a vibrant intensity that matches the unfolding events. Some of his editing techniques owe a great deal of debt to "Schindler's List" and "The Godfather," but his visuals are his own. Dublin has always been the center of Ireland, and Collins' actions and the upheaval he brought broke the paralysis Irish author James Joyce so often wrote about. Collins was the exact opposite of that paralysis -- he was vital and determined and courageous. He believed in what he was doing.
As a film, "Michael Collins" is one of the best of the year, bold and stirring, yet ultimately tragic. All of the details are there, including the stunning period recreation by production designer Anthony Pratt and costume designer Sandy Powell. Collins will always be a controversial figure, but as the film points out, his voice and his actions will live in the hearts of the Irish forever.
Reprinted with permission The Baylor Lariat