February 2021

Michael Collins (1996)

DIRECTOR: Neil Jordan

CAST: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Julia Roberts, Alan Rickman, Stephen Rea, Ian Hart, Brendan Gleeson, Charles Dance


Irish director Neil Jordan isn’t one to shy away from controversy (The Crying Game), and his latest film, a biopic of IRA (the so-called Irish Republican Army) founder Michael Collins, is sure to generate it again, both from those who feel it overly glorifies a man who, depending on who you ask, could either be labeled a freedom fighter or a terrorist, and from those who object to its negative portrayal of former Irish president Eamon De Valera.  Taken on its own merits, however, Michael Collins is a well-crafted, compelling historical drama anchored by a forceful lead performance by Liam Neeson.

After a prologue in 1916 in which heavily-armed British troops crush the Easter Rebellion, we move ahead a few years, as Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) and his friend and comrade-in-arms Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) return to Ireland from a British prison.  Both quickly return to rabble-rousing, raiding police stations, harassing British occupational forces, and ordering hit-and-run assassinations of Irish collaborators, as well as eventually staging a prison break for their old friend, the more statesman-like Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), who prefers politics over violence.  At the same time, both Michael and Harry become interested in Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), who first becomes involved with Harry but finds herself falling for Michael while Harry is away in the United States with De Valera drumming up American support for Irish independence.  Ultimately, after tit-for-tat increasingly brutal warfare, the British open peace talks, but when Michael can only win an Irish state rather than a sovereign nation, De Valera and his supporters refuse to accept it, resulting in an Irish civil war which will prove at least as painful as British subjugation.

On every level—production values, period detail, cinematography, music, narrative, and acting—Michael Collins is a top-tier production.  The muted colors accentuate the somber story, and the bursts of brutal violence—from both sides—are jarring, none more so than the depiction of the first Bloody Sunday (in which, in retaliation for the IRA’s assassination of British soldiers, British armored cars and troops indiscriminately open fire into a crowd attending a soccer match).   Jordan’s portrayal of the conflict is fairly even-handed, showing instances of brutal violence from both the IRA and the British (although it’s worth noting that Collins himself is never directly shown with blood on his hands).  The only questionable aspect of the script—apart from the Michael/Kitty romance, which feels perfunctory and obligatory—is the negative slant of its depiction of Eamon De Valera, who comes across as a sniveling politician, particularly when Jordan ambiguously insinuates that De Valera may have known in advance about Collins’ assassination (an implication the historical record provides no basis for), even though, in the narrative context of the movie in and of itself, it works effectively enough.

Perhaps it’s because the material strikes a personal cord for Liam Neeson, but whatever the case, his forceful, impassioned performance here is the most powerhouse acting he’s ever done (including his Oscar-nominated performance three years ago in Schindler’s List), never more so than in Michael’s anguish during the Irish civil war, when he is tormented by the prospect of, after having defeated the British, now being pitted against his own countrymen.  Neeson towers over the film (figuratively and literally), but there are some solid supporting performances.  Aidan Quinn is fine as Michael’s comrade-in-arms who is grieved to eventually find himself on the other side, and Alan Rickman, best-known for playing scenery-chewing villains, gives a low-key and restrained portrayal of Eamon De Valera (the script might unfairly semi-vilify De Valera, but at least Rickman’s performance avoids mustache-twirling).  Supporting roles include Ian Hart and Brendan Gleeson as two of Michael’s trusty lieutenants, Stephen Rea as a collaborator with the British who becomes a double agent for Michael, and Charles Dance in a small role as a ruthless British commander.  The only slightly “off” note is Julia Roberts, who is a bit out-of-place as Michael’s bland love interest.  Incidentally, the Irish accents onhand are variable, with Quinn barely making an attempt, Roberts sounding forced and half-hearted, and Rickman showing he’s got one voice and is sticking with it.  It’s not a major issue, but it’s occasionally distracting.

Neil Jordan reportedly worked on the script for thirteen years until he had amassed the clout to obtain the cast and budget he wanted, and his efforts have paid off.  Michael Collins, while historically questionable in a couple aspects, is a rousing, passionate ode to man whom at least some (including Neil Jordan and Liam Neeson) view as an Irish war hero and patriot.  Whether that’s your view of the title character or not, Michael Collins can stand on its own merits as a solid historical drama highlighting some of the backstory of the conflicts which continue to plague Ireland to this day.

* * * 1/2