Michael Collins (United Kingdom/United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"It's my considered opinion that in the fullness of time, history will record the greatness of [Michael] Collins and it will be recorded at my expense."
-- Eamon De Valera, President of the Republic of Ireland, 1966

Of the more than five dozen films to be released this Fall, none is likely to generate more controversy than Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, a biopic of the man who co-founded the IRA and signed the 1921 treaty that partitioned Ireland and provoked the 1922 civil war. Even before its release, the film has fanned passions in the United Kingdom, where it has been tagged with such diverse labels as "ammunition for IRA recruiting sergeants and fund-raisers" (Ruth Dudley Edwards) and "as important a film as ever to be made in Ireland about Ireland" (Art Cosgrove). Opponents are as vocal in their condemnation of the movie as supporters are in their defense of it. Not unexpectedly, writer/director Neil Jordan has been obligated to affirm the picture's integrity, stating at the Toronto Film Festival that "Most of the people who accuse me of inflaming the peace process have no interest in the peace process whatsoever."

In truth, while Michael Collins does distort elements of history, most of the changes and compressions are dramatically effective. Certain characters are combined, a few deaths happen differently from what history records, and events have been streamlined. The usage of such "dramatic license" is not uncommon in the development of reality-based movies, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that it exists in this case. Perhaps the most suspect element of Michael Collins' script is the negative portrayal of Irish hero Eamon De Valera. Without any real facts to back him up, Jordan hints that De Valera may have known about the assassination of Collins. Partisans of the late President will not react favorably to such speculation, even though, in the context of this narrative, it works.

Putting aside all the controversy, however, viewers are left with an expertly-directed and well-acted historical epic that disappoints only in its shallow perspective of the Irish/British and Irish/Irish conflicts. For, in truth, Michael Collins is as much the story of the birth pangs of the torn, troubled state as it is of one man's rise and fall. This is a case where the era not only defines the character, but the character defines the era. It's impossible to tell the tale of Michael Collins without delving into the beginnings of the IRA and the dramatic upsurge in support for Sinn Fein, yet there's a sense that important issues have been glossed over. However, Jordan's view of characters and circumstances is remarkably even-handed -- he shows both the brutality and sensitivity of Collins' nature, turning the man into the central figure of an almost-Shakespearean tragedy.

Strong acting is a key reason why Michael Collins is as effective as it is. Irish-born Liam Neeson, after playing a German (Schindler's List) and a Scotsman (Rob Roy), finally gets a chance to come home. His portrayal of Collins is the most passionate, powerful work he has ever done, easily eclipsing his Oscar-nominated presentation of Oscar Schindler. For well over a decade, Neeson has been carefully honing his talents, and the results are apparent here.

Although Neeson's forceful performance drives the movie, he is assisted by an able supporting cast. Aidan Quinn does his usual, solid job as Collins' best friend, Harry Boland. Alan Rickman, best known for playing flamboyant villains (Die Hard and Kevin Costner's Robin Hood) gives a surprisingly low-key and introspective interpretation of De Valera. Jordan veteran Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) plays Ned Broy, Collins' spy inside British Intelligence. And, despite a variable Irish accent, Julia Roberts is more than capable in the small role of Kitty Kiernan, the woman who brings Collins' human side to the fore.

Michael Collins opens in 1916 Dublin, with the infamous Easter Rising, where the better-organized British troops rout the Irish Volunteers. From there, the movie progresses rapidly through the next two turbulent years, tracking Collins' rise in power and popularity and De Valera's ascension to the head of Sinn Fein. Then, while De Valera is in America drumming up support for an independent Ireland, Collins' campaign of urban guerrilla warfare against the British proves to be a spectacular success. Rejecting conventional tactics, he uses an "invisible army" that strikes unexpectedly with whatever means are available. Informers are shot and England's Irish intelligence operation is brought to its knees. By late 1921, Churchill and Lloyd George are willing to talk peace, and De Valera sends Collins as the Irish representative. The resulting controversial treaty, the best Collins felt he could get at the time, fuels the drama of Michael Collins' final act. Because the agreement still requires that the Irish pay fealty to England's king and because it divides the country in two, De Valera rejects it, labeling it as a betrayal. Civil war ensues, and, on August 22, 1922, Collins is assassinated while in his home district of Cork.

Even for those who know the whole story of Michael Collins, the movie is still a riveting piece of film making, capable of holding an audience's attention for more than two hours. Jordan not only does an exceptional job recreating the Ireland of the 1920s, but presents us with an entirely human protagonist who's flawed yet sympathetic. Collins is not the brash hero of the traditional historical epic -- he's a tormented individual who knows that his chief talent is for creating mayhem, but who wants peace so desperately that he's willing to die for it. Leeson's portrayal of Collins' agony during the civil war is so real that, at times, it's almost painful to watch.

In tone and spirit, if not in time and place, this film shares a great deal with last year's Oscar-winning Braveheart. Michael Collins, like William Wallace, fought for independence, and, in the end, was its victim. Neil Jordan felt that this story was so important that he nurtured the script for thirteen years until he had the clout to command the actors and budget he wanted. The ultimate result may not quite match his ambitions, but it will still be one of 1996's most talked-about motion pictures.

Michael Collins (United Kingdom/United States, 1996)

Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Julia Roberts, Alan Rickman, Stephen Rea, Ian Hart, Brendan Gleeson, Stuart Graham, Charles Dance
Screenplay: Neil Jordan
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 1996-10-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1