Director brushes off criticism of Collins film

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Director brushes off criticism of Collins film

Neil Jordan's controversial film about Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins was greeted by sustained applause after its first public screening yesterday at the film festival, writes Lee Marshall from Venice.

In a press conference earlier in the day, the director dismissed charges that the film plays into the hands of the IRA, claiming that "almost all those who were talked into making adverse comments to the British press have changed their minds now they have actually seen the film".

Asked by one journalist about the possibility that the release of the film in the United States might be "used to rattle collecting tins for the IRA", Jordan replied: "No, that doesn't bother me. I don't think US audiences are as stupid as you seem to believe."

Michael Collins is, Jordan believes, "an intensely Irish film", which deals with a figure whose capacity to stir up impassioned debate is still as strong as when he was killed in an ambush in West Cork in 1922. Collins had masterminded the guerrilla war against the British and their agents in Ireland between 1919 and 1921, but the act that still divides Irish people even today was his signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921, as a member of the Irish delegation in London.

This treaty led to the creation of the Irish Free State - in effect giving Ireland dominion status - but it also sanctioned partition and required an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Irish republicans split, and civil war followed.

The director's bleak depiction of British rule will certainly attract criticism, but the most controversial aspect of the film within Ireland is likely to be its portrayal of Eamon De Valera, the revolutionary leader who went on to become a post-war president of the Irish Republic. De Valera is played by Alan Rickman, who is probably best known internationally for his "bad-guy" roles, including the Sherriff of Nottingham.

Jordan follows the historical consensus when he suggests that De Valera's decision to send Collins to London as chief negotiator was at best Machiavellian, at worst the deliberate offering up or a sacrifical victim. Far less a matter of historical record, however, is the film's muffled suggestion that it might have been De Valera - then leader of the anti-treaty faction - who ordered the ambush in which Collins was killed.

Jordan defended his version of events by pointing out that he has a degree in Irish history, and that the film was "as accurate a reconstruction as I could make in the cinematic medium. Michael Collins was shot while on his way to a meeting with De Valera in West Cork. De Valera was in the same valley at the time Collins was shot. The ambush was carried out by men who were loyal to De Valera. Those are the facts around which I constructed the last 10 minutes of the film."

Liam Neeson, who plays Collins in the film, says he is "thrilled" by the result. "Neil has tried to cast light on a period which was very dark and murky, and I think he has succeeded magnificently." Julia Roberts, whose portrayal of Collins's fiancee Kitty Kiernan in the film is as uncertain as her Irish accent, was unavailable for comment.

Faced with yet another question about whether he has made a hero out of a terrorist, Jordan snapped back his final word on the matter before retiring from the fray: "History has taught us again and again that yesterday's terrorist is today's statesman."