The voice on the phone is a soft lilt, as gentle as an Irish mist. Liam Neeson is on the line, talking about Michael Collins, and he seems in a
generous mood—relieved by early response to the film after spending a day doing interviews at a media junket last week in Los Angeles. “Everyone seems very, very positive,” he says. “You can always tell. If a film hasn’t reached its potential, the junket people know it and you know it, and you’re just trying to wing it.” Neeson has reason to feel
confidant about Michael Collins. After playing a German savior in Schindler’s List and a Scots freedom fighter in Rob Roy, the Irish-born actor finally gets to champion his own national roots as Collins—the fiery guerrilla leader who led the battle for Ireland’s independence. The movie won the grand prize at last month’s Venice Film Festival, where Neeson took the best-actor award for a powerhouse performance that now seems a strong contender for an Oscar nomination.
Echoing the spirit of Irish politics, Michael Collins has been embroiled in controversy. Some British commentators have challenged its version of the facts and predicted it will inflame the situation in Northern Ireland. Michael Coren, a right-wing columnist based in Toronto, calls it “a complete travesty, a piece of Provo [Provisional Irish Republican
Army] propaganda that will raise a lot of money to buy arms for the IRA.” But in an interview with Maclean’s, the movie’s Irish writer-director, Neil Jordan said: “I don’t support the IRA. I never have. It annoys me when people assume I do. Just because you portray a conflict back then, are we so idiotic that it means we support bombing civilians in London? Collins never involved himself with violence against civilians. He never even thought of fighting a war that he knew he couldn’t win. Whereas nobody can win that business in the north of Ireland.” Jordan’s obsession with bringing the Collins story to the screen goes back to the beginning of his career. He first offered Neeson the role 12 years ago, before either of them was famous. “I was a jobbing actor living in London,” Neeson recalls. “Neil said he saw Collins as a real big thug and a bully, and
I thought, ‘Oh, is that why he wants to cast me, because I’m six feet, four inches and I look like a big thug?’ But when I read the first draft of the script, it wasn’t this thug at all. This was a man who passionately loved Ireland. He wore his heart on his sleeve.” For a decade, Jordan’s script disappeared into development limbo. The director went on to make his name with The Crying Game (1992) and Interview with the Vampire (1994). And Neeson became a star. Meanwhile, rival Collins projects had emerged, including a Warner Bros, picture with Kevin Costner. But Neeson and Jordan persuaded
Warner to back their project instead. “Kevin Costner’s film would have been a big, romantic Hollywood epic,” says Neeson, “and I’m sure it would have made loads of money.”
But wait, isn’t Jordan’s movie a big, romantic Hollywood epic? “In many ways it is, but you know what I mean,” the actor replies, trying his best to be diplomatic. “Kevin’s film would have been ... I don’t know, I can’t think of the word.” Preposterous, perhaps. After seeing Costner fudge an English accent as Robin Hood, the prospect of him playing an Irishman is scary, to say the least.
As it turns out, Jordan’s movie plays as a kind of historic compromise between Hollywood gloss and political grit. From the opening scene, of British howitzers shelling the rebel-held post office during Dublin’s 1916
Easter Uprising, the accent is on spectacle. And the drama’s bombastic tone is propelled by a grandiose score that never lets up. Neeson, however, bulls his way through the movie with inspiring conviction, conveying both the brute passion and tragic frustration of the man behind the heroic myth.
The story is certainly the stuff of legend. Although Collins is a public enemy, his face is unknown to the police, and he rides his bicycle through Dublin right under their noses, marshalling his secret guerrilla force, the Irish Volunteers. With the help of a double agent, Ned Broy (Stephen Rea), he penetrates police intelligence, obtains a list of informants, then arranges to have them murdered in a ruthless series of executions. In a sequence reminiscent of The Godfather, Jordan intercuts the killings with a scene of Collins making love to Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), whom he shares with his best friend, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn).
The British, meanwhile, retaliate with brutal attacks on civilians. And as the violence intensifies, Eamon De Valera (Alan
Rickman), the rebels’ official leader, travels to America to drum up support for the cause, taking Boland with him. By the time they return, Collins has fought the British to a truce. Taking charge, De Valera dispatches Collins to London to negotiate with Britain, although Collins insists he is a fighter, not a diplomat. When he returns in 1921 with a treaty establishing an Irish Free State but leaving the North partitioned, De Valera hotly rejects it. And that sets the stage for civil war—in which Collins is ambushed and murdered, at the age of 31.
It is a vast expanse of story. “In terms of the script,” says Jordan, “I faced some of the same problems [screenwriter] Robert Bolt did with Lawrence of Arabia. You’ve got to convey both the excitement of achieving the
ideal, and then the confusion of the aftermath.” On top of that is the romantic subplot, which “could be another movie,” adds Jordan. “Those two guys who were best friends shared the same bed and the same gun and were in love with the same woman.”
When Jordan’s drama pulls back from the rush of events, it focuses mainly on the relationship between Collins and Boland— brothers-in-arms pulled apart by sexual rivalry and political differences. Their rift comes to symbolize the tragedy of Ireland. De Valera, played as a bloodless manipulator by Rickman, remains a shadowy figure. And the romance is no more than window dressing. The perfunctory love scenes are, in fact, quite ridiculous. Neeson and Roberts have no chemistry—maybe because once upon a time they did have chemistry (they dated before Neeson settled down with Natasha Richardson). Jordan summarily cuts short their kisses, as if he were as bored and annoyed by Roberts as the rest of us.
While Roberts takes the prize for the film’s most inauthentic moments, some critics have attacked Jordan for doctoring historical fact. Perhaps his boldest embellishment is a horrifying scene in which British armored cars roll into a Dublin stadium during a soccer game and fire into the crowd, killing 12 people and wounding 60. The Bloody Sunday massacre did take place, in 1920, but was carried out by British auxiliaries with guns; the armored cars were Jordan’s invention. “What actually happened would look even worse,” he says. “At the least the armored cars are faceless.” Jordan also shows Broy being murdered on the night of Bloody Sunday, although he actually survived. But, with permission from Broy’s family, Jordan created a composite character out of Broy and two other Collins comrades who were tortured to death in Dublin Castle that night.
Whether or not Jordan is the Oliver Stone of Ireland, what his critics find most offensive is that by glorifying Collins he could glamorize the present-day IRA. Collins was, in fact, the father of modern guerrilla warfare, an inspiration to fighters ranging from Mao Tse-tung in China to Yitzhak Shamir in Israel. But after signing the treaty, he became a proponent of peace. “It’s one thing to introduce a gun into a movement,” says Jordan. “It’s far more difficult to take it out. The film shows this person who built this armed movement, then, having achieved his objective, tried to stop it.” Neeson concurs: ‘What gives Collins greatness,” he says, “is that he knew when to stop the violence.”
Despite all the political controversy, what is most frustrating about the film is that it only grazes the surface of the politics. It is an amazing story, and one completely unfamiliar to most viewers. Forging myth from history, Michael Collins gives an unsung hero his due. But in building a bridge to Ireland’s embattled past, it goes only so far. □
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