Guerrillas in their midst

Neil Jordan's passion fuels Michael Collins

There's a great line delivered by the Scottish protagonist in Trainspotting: "A lot of people hate the English, but I don't. The English are just wankers, but what are we? We were colonized by wankers! We can't even pick a decent culture to be colonized by."

That may be the sentiment in Scotland, but you can't say the Irish ever ceased to resist colonization; sadly, their resistance has exacted a heavy toll. During the 1920s, Michael Collins was a vigorous revolutionary in the struggle for Ireland's freedom from the shackles of a barbaric English colonial rule. Along with Eamon de Valera and some others, Collins organized the Irish Republican Army, fired the first shot for modern Irish independence, and eventually sealed the first treaty with his own blood. Neil Jordan's new film about this struggle, called simply Michael Collins, is a lionizing historical account that restores esteem to the glorious, heroic campaign that the IRA waged in the name of self-determination. (It wasn't until the 1960s, when the IRA's system of violence escalated precipitously, that it became rightly characterized as a coterie of savage terrorists.)

Even today, what the British did to the Irish--and what, in Jordan's view, they still do--defies explanation. It was said that the sun never set on the British empire, making it doubly puzzling why the English so concerned themselves with a small green isle off their southwest coast. The most obvious explanation for their draconian tactics is also among the most difficult to comprehend in a civilized world: that the Irish were convenient cannon fodder for foreign wars, a nearby testing grounds for revenue-enhancing taxes and political experiments that the landed gentry of Britain would never accede to. (When the American colonies achieved their independence, England must have decided that a short leash is best wielded from a close distance.) Jordan brushes upon these motives, but the complex ballet of details does not form the grist of what he plainly conceives of as an epic action film more in need of a rallying cry than a manifesto. Just as Henry V did four centuries ago, Michael Collins stands first and foremost as a fiercely jingoistic battle hymn, an ode to the heroism of proud rebels and an elegy to their passing.

By making the guerrilla warfare the fulcrum of the plot and building a sense of power and grandeur to it through Godfatherlike cross-cutting, Jordan clothes Michael Collins with the mantle of a standard war movie, but the politics behind it adds a measure of loftiness that sometimes undercuts its emotional resonance. Although it's vastly better than Braveheart, both suffer the same handicap: You're not expected just to like the movie; you're supposed to respect it, too. Although it is expertly produced, roundly well-acted, and always watchable, two hours and 15 minutes is a long time to sing a national anthem.

Jordan has shown himself in previous films to be conflicted by the complicated political and social landscape of Great Britain. In Mona Lisa, he ferreted out the confusion among the classes and the shocking degree of depravity a high-priced call girl could learn to become comfortable with. Even more strikingly, The Crying Game garnered such a fervid reputation for its gender-bending gamesmanship that the more potent and relevant message--the nature of identity and the presuppositions we make about race, sex, nationality, and political affiliation--were almost completely obscured. Jordan seemed to be working through his ambivalence in these films, and ambivalence is what Michael Collins patently lacks. In a recent interview, Liam Neeson, who plays Collins, said that the English aren't meant to come across as heartless villains, but that's hollow lip service in the context of the film. From the dour introduction admonishing us what a great human being Collins was through the opening scene where Tories march lockstep down the streets of Dublin to the "Colonel Bogey March"--corralling the straggly Irish rebels like cattle awaiting market--and everywhere else, there can be no doubt where Jordan's loyalties ultimately lie, or where the audience's should, either.

The interplay between Neeson and Alan Rickman, who plays de Valera, gives a superb canvas on which Jordan paints his didactic sermon about honor and liberty. Before Nixon went to China, Collins went to London and caught the aristocracy by surprise with his willingness to compromise, backed as it was by the proof of his guerrilla skills. Collins was the Renaissance man of revolutionaries, a soldier and a negotiator, and his apparent lack of sophistication--and the implied threat of his obvious physical superiority--made him an unknown quantity. Neeson seems beefier than before, and this gives his version of Collins a hulking, brutish quality, not stupid exactly, but guilelessly frank. The British were afraid of him, and Neeson reminds you why.

Aside from the mostly faceless English devils (Charles Dance shows up briefly as the arrogant head of the secret service, for example), Jordan takes the interesting step of casting de Valera as the principal antagonist. This may be the most difficult and thankless role in the film, and Rickman assays it with a masterful mix of indecision, calculation, and petulance. Having the British Rickman play de Valera also smacks of more subliminal allegiance-shifting, courtesy of Jordan; Rickman's English accent and manner is a constant reminder that he's not really Irish, nor really strong. He's a diplomat child: spoiled, demanding, curious, but in the end cowardly. History may have recorded de Valera as the mind of Ireland, but in this construct Collins is its heart and soul. The ego battles between the two characters, with each actor vying for our sympathy, is one of the film's great pleasures.

As the colleen Kitty, Julia Roberts brings a lovely humanity to the proselytizing and action scenes; and Stephen Rea, seeming mousier than usual, brings an expected degree of compassion as an Irish royalist. The only weak link in the acting chain is, predictably, Aidan Quinn. Quinn sulks around in a part handcrafted for his somber, jiggling-Adam's-apple-style self-pitying second leads. He has always been a dangerous actor to cast according to type (he's better in movies like Stakeout, where he played a villain), simply because he brings a sameness to these parts. His characters rarely get the girl because you never really feel they deserve it. It's unlikely he'll ever develop into a viable leading man; he lacks charisma.

Jordan's shameless preaching of his gospel of Irish nationalism ultimately encumbers the film rather than liberating it. Michael Collins has many positive traits: Jordan imbues it with a sincerity and energy that can only come from a man passionate about what he believes in, but the unregulated flow of that passion likewise proves to be its greatest liability. It's rousing and entertaining by virtue of its scope and intensity, but a haughty sense of piety really carries the day. In its quest for honor and moral gravity, Michael Collins falls as the man himself did: a noble casualty of patriotism, a prisoner of its own good intentions.

Michael Collins. Warner Bros./Geffen Pictures. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea. Written and directed by Neil Jordan. Now playing.

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