The Big Fella

Michael Collins Neil Jordan (15)
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The Independent Culture
Neil Jordan's first film, Angel, was praised particularly for its oblique approach to political conflict in Ireland, and his work since then has always had a quotient of dreaminess in it. But now the dreamer delivers a history lesson, with the story of Michael Collins, visionary, terrorist, martyr, or perhaps all three.

This is a large-scale film, with a heroic actor, Liam Neeson, in the lead, whose persona of the poetic bruiser puts him in a good position to encompass the contradictions of someone who was both a scrapper and a tactician, able at different times to raise the stakes and play dirty or to make a judicious compromise in the name of peace. Unusually, too, Michael Collins uses the talents of an established feature director, Chris Menges, as its director of photography, though the results here are slightly perverse. It's as if this high-powered creative partnership only had time for one meeting, a meeting so brief that they didn't have the chance to do more than murmur the key phrase "smoky blue-grey". It's rare to see a film that explores a single narrow tone of colour so obsessively - in mists, drizzles, exhalations. At one point, blue-grey smoke even swirls in a room whose two occupants give no sign of smoking.

Jordan's screenplay contains many elements of the architecture necessary for a properly tragic story. It starts with the collapse of the Easter Rising of 1916, as the bombardment of the Post Office forces the surrender of the rebels. Collins's use of guerrilla tactics - his virtual invention of the terrorist method - was designed to avoid any repetition of this staged suicide.

Yet only a few years later, not only did it all happen again, with another blue-grey public building being bombarded (this time the Four Courts) and the anti-imperialists inside being pulverised, but Collins was now in the position of the oppressor. He was ordering the bombardment. In the intervening years, Collins had been sent by De Valera to negotiate in London, despite his pleas that he was the instinctive fighter who had forced the Brits to the conference table, not a diplomat who could deal with them there.

As the film explains it, De Valera sent Collins as a sort of designated scapegoat, knowing that there was no prospect of the British making the necessary concessions. The outcome of the talks was a treaty, which Collins and the voters accepted, at which point De Valera split the party and set off civil war. There was also an element of personal grievance, at the way Collins had run the domestic show without De Valera (while he spent a year in America trying to drum up support) and enjoyed the personal publicity accruing to the "big fella".

Intimate conflict also features in the story between Collins and his best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), rivals for the love of Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts). There are moments when the pair of them are set up almost as the Jules and Jim of the Troubles, but Jordan is careful to show us two physical confrontations between them. The first is a rivalrous fight, with some humour in it, the second a bitter tussle between sworn enemies, even though Boland's siding with Dev may have something to do with his rancour at Collins's success with Kitty.

The paradoxical thing about Michael Collins is that there are plenty of tragic flaws - Dev has his cold-hearted resentment, Boland his furious disappointment - but the tragic hero lacks one. Collins is a man of violence when he has to be, man of peace when he gets the chance.

Audiences won't take their eyes off Liam Neeson, but may find that it is Alan Rickman's De Valera they remember. In one well written scene, the profoundly religious Dev assists at Mass in prison in England. Reverently he tinkles the Angelus bell, but can't keep his eyes off the keys revealed on the celebrant's belt every time he curtseys to the altar. After Mass the chaplain thanks Dev, remarking that there must be hope when two people of opposing politics can come together in worship. De Valera, who has just that moment made an impression of the filched key in a candle, agrees that there must be, with that most wintry display of bleak amusement, the Rickman rictus. This scene would be no more than droll if we didn't feel Dev's belief in the symbols he is busy desecrating. There's more complexity here than attaches to Collins at any point in the film.

If Collins's arguments for British withdrawal were powerful enough to persuade an intelligence agent employed by the British (Ned Broy, played by Stephen Rea), you'd think the director would have no need of cheap cinematic rhetoric to bolster them. Yet in one bizarre scene Jordan intercuts the assassinations of British security men off duty, ordered by Collins, with the Big Fella explaining this sad necessity to lovely Kitty, who asks him to justify himself while waving that most unanswerable of weapons - a red rose - and inclining gracefully to the horizontal. The effect is simply grotesque. Does Jordan even realise that this contrapuntal approach to editing derives from the massacre-intercut-with-christening sequence in The Godfather, where its meaning was rather different?

Julia Roberts is miscast in the first place, with her dodgy accent and anachronistic brand of radiance. The time when she could do no wrong on screen seems very long ago. But Jordan goes on to include her in sequences that no one could make work. As the moment of Collins's martyrdom approaches, we see Kitty shopping for her wedding dress. A director who feels the need to milk the pathos of assassination by reminding us that this lovely young thing will lose her man before she can marry him, and who adds Sinead O'Connor singing "She Moved Through the Fair" to the unholy mixture, is strangely out of touch with the hero he seeks to honour, and the audience he wants so badly to stirn

`Michael Collins' is released tomorrow.