Critics are fretting way too much over Michael Collins, as they frequently do with historical films. Is it an accurate portrait or a glorification? Will it inflame the renewed Irish Troubles? No use picking nits about Michael Collins; it’s an unabashed romantic epic. The proof is in the casting: hunks Liam Neeson and Aidan Quinn, pretty woman Julia Roberts, and thinking-woman’s heart-throbs Alan Rickman (whose stock has risen since Sense and Sensibility) and Stephen Rea (The Crying Game).
Working from his own script, which took years to get produced, the acclaimed Irish director Neil Jordan uses very broad and movie-ish strokes to paint his portrait of the busy, eponymous hero. As played by Neeson, Michael Collins is a Dublin scrapper with soul — a terrorist who regrets the need for terrorism. In 1916, the British have the Irish under their thumbs, and Collins believes that the only way to escape the oppressors’ thumbs is to hack them off.
We get premonitions of the violent dissent to come when Collins clashes with Irish Republican Army president Eamon De Valera (Rickman), a canny and (Jordan suggests) murderously duplicitous politician. As Collins tires of bloodshed and seeks a peaceful compromise, De Valera harbors vengeful bloodlust beneath his dyspeptic demeanor. Michael Collins should be seen for Rickman’s performance alone; his best and spookiest moments are his most immobile — he’s like a cobra in repose.
That’s one of the movie’s two conflicts. The other is between Collins and his best friend, Harry Boland (Quinn), who are both madly in love with the gentle Kitty Kiernan (Roberts). Sometimes this love triangle is groanworthy, even if it did actually happen, and dramatically it leads nowhere. Neeson and Roberts strike few sparks together, perhaps because they were once an item in real life years ago.
Jordan isn’t good at conventional romance, anyway. He’s best known as a dark fantasist (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves), and Michael Collins gives him some Third Man-esque intrigue to play with. When Collins meets a spy (Rea) in various dark places, the atmosphere is as saturnine and forbidding as you could hope for, and Jordan’s cinematographer Chris Menges works in bottomless shades of blue and gray. (No green in this Irish movie.) The director also stages violence — sudden, jolting — like a true pacifist.
The performers understand their function, which is to look great and be larger than life. Roberts’ accent falters a bit (as it did in Mary Reilly), but she commits herself, as if grateful for a high-prestige job. Quinn has a fine moment of quiet heartbreak when Kitty confesses her love for Collins. Neeson comes through with a full-bodied, full-throated performance, though you’d do well to forget that Collins was only 31 when he was murdered. Neeson, who looks his age (44), is playing a man in his twenties for much of the movie. Michael Collins is neither a history lesson nor great art; it lacks the complexity to be either one. What it offers is Jordan’s visual mood, carried on Neeson’s wide shoulders. You either relax into the voluptuous movieness of it or you don’t. I did, happily.