Film: A hero too good to be true

Neil Jordan's Robin Hood-ish `Michael Collins' stretches credulity; Peter Greenaway's `Pillow Book' just stretches the senses

In dreams begin responsibilities, as the poet wrote, and Neil Jordan, whose latest cinematic dream is about a man who had no time for the woolly, nobly defeatist reveries of his fellow countrymen, has already been held responsible for painting a killer as a romantic hero, thereby helping to sanctify modern-day murderers. In the present climate it would be coy to play the formalist and simply chat about Michael Collins (15) on its own terms, as the Irish director's attempt to give his homeland its Birth of a Nation; but since few of his denouncers did Jordan such a minimal courtesy before the film's release, it might be as well at least to begin in that spirit.

In his published shooting diary, Jordan refers to the scene in which the Union Jack is taken down from Dublin Castle as a "David Leanish" moment. There are some instructive parallels between his film and Lean's portrait of a near-contemporary guerrilla leader, Lawrence of Arabia. Both films follow the transformation of an apparently unpromising minor player into the charismatic head of a revolt against Empire; both depict bloody terrorist actions leading to pyrrhic victory for the rebels; both show their heroes growing sick not just of bloodshed but of their propensity for bloodshed; then, with an accelerating slide towards tragedy, both display how good fighters can make pathetic diplomats, especially when they are the dupes of slyer, more Machiavellian spirits - in Collins's case, of Eamon de Valera.

This is as much as to say that Jordan's is a thoroughly old-fashioned film. More so in certain respects than Lean's; for example, where Lawrence danced gracefully around its hero's implied and tortured sexuality with a flurry of camp indirection, Jordan makes conventional (and not altogether felicitous) symbolic and thematic play of Collins's romance with Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts). A sequence of IRA dawn shootings is intercut with a rosy-fingered tryst between Mick and Kitty; Collins's own eventual murder, the film's finale, is intercut with Kitty trying on a wedding dress, while Sinead O'Connor warbles on the soundtrack. The total upshot may fairly be described as A Bit Much.

And where Lawrence was remarkably even-handed towards all its warring factions, Jordan's depiction of the British enemy leans towards a mythic simplicity that some films were outgrowing even in DW Griffith's day. Though its treatment of conflict is always mournful rather than incendiary, dressed up in elegiac music and the sombre, deep-blue tones of Chris Menge's cinematography, Michael Collins allows an innocent viewer the elementary luxury of always knowing that the good guy is truly good and the bad guys are truly rotters.

At this primal level, it's a well-mounted, seductive piece of film-making, and can be as rousing as any Robin Hood story, especially since Liam Neeson makes Collins a supremely likeable man - butch, courageous, idealistic, modest, considerate, passionate, eloquent and always ready to buy his round. A couple of hours in the pub with this splendid chap and the Revd Ian Paisley would be champing at the bit to have a go at the Black and Tans. But then all the leading Republicans are splendid chaps, from Collins's boyish best pal Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) to Ned Broy (Stephen Rea), his lugubrious fifth columnist in the British security forces.

In fact, they are such a pack of plaster saints that after a while you start to crave a bit of mischief. And pat it comes, in the lean and glacial form of de Valera, who, in Alan Rickman's mesmerising performance, is a character of such fascinating, quiet menace, compounded with such quixotic romanticism and unguessable ambition, that every time he is on screen you wish you were watching a film called de Valera. He also, in the episode of the jailbreak-in-a-frock from Lincoln prison, allows the film one of its rare oases of faint humour.

Without this de Valera, Jordan's film would be unbearably schematic. Whatever the real-life Collins's feelings on the matter, neither the script nor Neeson's otherwise faultless acting ever makes his ethical qualms seem much more than perfunctory. "Jesus, I hate you," whispers Kitty adoringly as she climbs into his bed. "Join the club," he replies, mournfully. "Oh, come off it," thinks the impatient viewer, who has not long since watched a pack of wicked Brits and accomplices die in the ignoble manner characteristic of all tyrants, and thus been shown that Collins has only been doing what a Nationalist's gotta do.

But de Valera provides Jordan with some things he urgently needs: a figure with the capacity for real, complex villainy rather than the stock wickedness represented, say, by Charles Dance's Secret Service boss (one of his best performances, by the way), and a man around whom historical ambiguities can cluster. Jordan hints that de Valera may have sent Collins to negotiate with the British in the knowledge that he would bring back an unsatisfactory compromise and would thus have to carry the can in the eyes of history for the inevitable civil war. He allows the possibility that Collins's death may have been ordered by de Valera, though suggests more strongly that it may have been a rogue action on the part of the younger, more nihilistic men - the true forefathers, that is, of the Provos.

This careful separation of one phase of the Irish war of independence from its later evolution must be crucial for Jordan, both in exculpating Collins from later bloodshed and in distancing his film from today's IRA. Does the film glamorise Collins? Absolutely, but that's the nature of the biopic beast. Must it therefore be regarded as a big, expensive ad for the Semtex boys? Absolutely not, viewed with even a moderate degree of historical perspective. Yet it offers more hostages to fortune than Jordan may be willing to concede. It will do British audiences no harm at all to watch the scene in which the Black and Tans randomly machine- gun a crowd. On the other hand, it's a fair bet that the Noraid mob and other terrorist groupies will gorge on the film's demonising view of the Brits ("I hate them for making hate necessary," Collins spits) and use it to pick open scabs that everyone else wants healed - that Collins himself, if Jordan's account is just, wanted healed. In itself, Michael Collins is a responsible film, while not always a subtle one; let's hope it doesn't breed more irresponsible dreams.

No film-maker has ever been so alive to the addictive pleasures of list- making as Peter Greenaway, and his gloriously mandarin The Pillow Book (18), loosely fired by the 1,000-year-old Japanese novel, teems with taxonomies of exquisite ideas and sensations. Set in the Kyoto of the 1970s and the Hong Kong of the near future, it shuttles around the very Greenawayesque obsessions of a young Japanese woman (Vivian Wu) and her quest for the ideal lover who will also daub her body with ideal calligraphies; she turns writer-calligrapher herself when she meets a beautiful Englishman (this week's job for Ewan McGregor) whose flesh will be the paper for her pen. Cruelty waits in the wings. Crammed to the point of sensory overload with multiple images of bodies both gross and comely, any number of delicious faces, and quaint and curious notions, it is the kind of artefact an erudite sensualist like Huysmans's Des Esseintes might have adored. Surely there can be no higher recommendation?

Jaco Van Dormael's follow-up to Toto the Hero, The Eighth Day (PG), has such a blissfully enjoyable, eccentric overture - an account of the seven days of creation as conceived by Georges, a cheery natural philosopher unfortunately hampered by Down's syndrome - that it is hard to credit how thoroughly it nosedives into a sappy redemption tale to rival anything Hollywood could cheek. Georges runs away from his institution and is picked up by Harry (Daniel Auteuil), a lonely businessman estranged from his wife and kids and living in a flat so anally retentive it would make a minimalist sculptor uneasy. Before long, Georges has taught Harry to laugh and love and smell the roses and ... you can guess most of the rest. Except, possibly, the singing-mouse sequence.

"Are you girls getting high?" shrieks an anxious mother through the bedroom door at her teenage daughter and chums in The Craft (15). Well, one of them is starting to: she's already levitating a good two feet off the ground, since this quartet of misfits are dabbling in Wicca. Andrew Fleming's film is most diverting in its earlier stages, when the girls' witchery has mostly comical effects, but seems to lose inspiration when things turn uglier. Carrie can keep its prom-queen crown as the top high-school- occult movie for a while longer.

Three to go: Fled (PG), a tiresome and, though it rankles to admit it, excessively violent thriller with comic bits about a couple of nice convicts (Larry Fishburn, Stephen Baldwin) on the run; Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (PG), a comedy of almost unequalled ineptitude that does not merit summary; and, the most purely delightful release of the week, Edward Dmytryk's version of Farewell, My Lovely (no cert), with Dick Powell as Marlowe, plenty of Chandler zingers on the voice-over, some natty hallucinations, and - the cherry on the cupcake - Mike Mazurki as Moose Molloy.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14

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