Hidden agenda

Inaccuracy! Distortion! Betrayal! Films about Irish history have always been subject to establishment disapproval, and Neil Jordan's forthcoming `Michael Collins' is no exception. But since when has historical accuracy been the standard by which films are judged? By Ronan Bennett
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The Independent Culture
For a short while it looked as if Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins was in the clear. In September the film won prestigious prizes at Venice for best picture and best actor. Variety, praising in particular the "nothing short of sensational" cinematography of Chris Menges, said it was "staggeringly well made" and had "a great deal to offer serious, discerning audiences". The film critics of The Daily Telegraph and The Times agreed. Michael Collins was "an intelligent, stirring and noble movie" and was "more likely to increase understanding rather than foment misunderstandings".

Yet very quickly second thoughts began to surface in the opinion pages of some of the very papers whose critics had championed the movie. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Paul Bew, a Belfast historian, denounced the film for its "string of major omissions" and anachronisms. Bew rounded on Liam Neeson's "leprechaun version" of Collins, on Jordan's "selective amnesia in pursuit of an unbending political agenda", and on a film-making style whose "whole effect is close to that cruel self-absorption spliced with sentimentality that is characteristic of fascist art". These strong words were echoed in a leader calling for the film to be withdrawn. Similar censures had been appearing for some time in sections of the Irish press, where one of Jordan's most voluble critics is Eoghan Harris, a columnist for the Irish edition of The Sunday Times. Like Bew, Harris attacked Jordan in robust - not to say insulting - language. Harris was, he said, "sickened" by the film.

The heat of the criticism should alert readers to the fact that the real issue at stake is not accuracy. When has any historical film satisfied the stickler for accuracy? Was Ivan the Terrible accurate? Danton? Schindler's List? A Man for All Seasons? The list is endless. Jordan insists that his film is "accurate to the broad course of the events it depicts", and modern audiences are astute enough to know that when a film-maker - or any artist - raises the "substantially true" defence, he means true to his vision of the subject. Jordan is not a historian. He has interpreted Collins, just as Fred Zinnemann and Robert Bolt interpreted Sir Thomas More and Sergei Eisenstein interpreted Ivan IV.

The limitations the nature of film impose on narrative, character, time and location are obvious in Collins. Film is a reductive medium. The bigger the story (and Collins is a huge story), the greater the demand for compression and conflation. Harris should know this. As a screenwriter on Sharpe, ITV's popular Napoleonic Wars drama, he is hardly in a position to throw stones. Film-makers are selective about what they choose to put in their movie. But then so are some columnists; and so - for all their claims to interpret the past in a value-free context - are some historians.

The truth is that accuracy is not what the fuss is about. The real point of the intemperate criticism levelled at Jordan is that this is no time to be making films like Michael Collins. The celluloid portrayal of a man who planned and fought a guerrilla war against the British and succeeded, in 1921-22, in winning partial independence for his country serves only - the argument runs - to encourage the IRA and inflame the passions of the gullible, particularly in the US, where audiences are sadly unable to follow the British lead of dispassionate inquiry and analysis when it comes to Ireland. Likewise, there are similar calls for audiences to be shielded from two other current "Troubles" films - Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal, about a gang of Loyalist killers at work in the Belfast of 1975, and Some Mother's Son, about the 1981 IRA hunger strike. The first is on limited release in England; the second, directed by Terry George, a former Republican prisoner, has so far been seen only in Ireland. To date, the only passions these films seem to have inflamed are those of certain politically interested critics.

If the criticisms sound familiar it is because they have been rehearsed at length and with some spleen before. Jordan's earlier film, The Crying Game (1992), bothered some people because the character played by Stephen Rea, who won an Oscar nomination for his performance, was a sensitive man tortured by his violent past. Put bluntly, the objection was that the film dared to show an IRA man as an essentially decent human being. (In the interests of accuracy it should be pointed out that Jordan's other IRA characters were anything but decent human beings.) The representation of Republicans in film - and fiction - is highly problematic. To show IRA volunteers as possessing the full range of normal human responses and emotions runs against the prevailing stereotypes. Yet to show them on film in such one-dimensional terms runs against everything writers, directors and actors know about successful characterisation. Those who want to make films about Ireland are caught between a political imperative which encourages conformity of vision and an artistic one which demands exactly the reverse.

In Hidden Agenda (1990), Ken Loach explored the Stalker affair, also examined by Peter Kosminsky in his own, award-winning television drama Shoot to Kill. Both directors came in for vitriolic abuse. Alexander Walker, film critic of the Evening Standard, famously walked out of a screening of Hidden Agenda at Cannes, calling the film a disgrace. Though again the allegations were ostensibly to do with inaccuracy and distortion, the subtext was about sticking up for one's side, right or wrong, and keeping quiet when one's side is caught out. By the time Hidden Agenda and Shoot to Kill appeared it was already well established that the RUC and the intelligence services had been involved in a desperate cover-up. Loach and Kosminsky were guilty of nothing less than betrayal: film-makers, like any loyal citizen, have a duty to turn a blind eye to the state's misdemeanours when those misdemeanours are committed in the cause of defeating the country's foes.

Allegations of distortion and inaccuracy were likewise levelled against Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993), the story of Gerry and Guiseppe Conlon's wrongful imprisonment (and the latter's death in jail) in the aftermath of the Guildford pub bombings. These criticisms had a particularly hollow ring, for they came in the main from right-wing politicians and commentators who, had they exercised their famous interest in accuracy 15 years earlier and impartially scrutinised the evidence against the accused, might have prevented a shameful miscarriage of justice. Sheridan did elide, he did re-arrange and compress. But the essential facts of the story he told were true, and no one, not even those who heaped criticism on his film, could deny it. What they resented so bitterly had nothing to do with accuracy but the fact that the judiciary, the police and the media had been mercilessly exposed.

The safest bet for the film-maker is to steer an even course between what are commonly called the "two extremes" (Republican and Loyalist), wishing a plague on both their houses, focusing on the suffering of the good and innocent and ending up with a homily: violence is bad, political violence is worse; its practitioners are evil - but no matter how hard they try, hope can never be extinguished. The classic narrative device here is the "love-across-the-divide" story: Catholic boy meets Protestant girl (or vice versa) only to be wrenched apart by fate, history, a conflict no right-thinking person can fathom, and a blindly bigoted and warped community. Such themes were present in Pat O'Connor's Cal (1984) and have been the hallmark of much television drama, well-intentioned, decent but ultimately, it has to be said, boring.

According to his critics, Jordan displays an "ambiguous" attitude to Republicans - if not one of sympathy at least of sneaking regard. I doubt Jordan is as ambiguous as they imagine. Over the years a number of Irish artists, writers, performers and film-makers have expressed in interviews sentiments broadly sympathetic to the Republican movement. Jordan, who spends much of his time in the US, has not been among them. Nor was he among those Irish-Americans who came out to support Gerry Adams when Adams toured America during the IRA ceasefire. Indeed, Jordan featured on British television as one of a number of well-heeled and successful Irish in America who were organising in an effort to counter the influence of the newly- formed Friends of Sinn Fein.

There is, however, a very real and very important sense of ambiguity around Jordan. It is the ambiguity central to artistic endeavour. Ambiguity here is not neutrality, but the recognition that doubt, dilemma, crisis and confusion - personal, moral, political - play a crucial part in creating the point of view in the work. Jordan's critics are polemicists.

To them certainty, right and absolute truth are things apparently easily grasped, clearly defined, and spurned only by the wilfully degenerate. No self-respecting film-maker can put such fixity of purpose and belief in his work. The minute he does so he stops being an artist and starts to turn into a propagandistn

`Michael Collins' goes on general release on 8 Nov.

Ronan Bennett is a novelist and screenwriter. His film, `A Further Gesture', starring Stephen Rea, will go on release next spring