Neil Jordan is one of the most puzzling moviemakers currently at work in world cinema. His film career has been wildly uneven. At his best, in pictures like Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992), he stands with a small group of preeminent filmmakers. At his worst, in a trifle like the 1987 comedy High Spirits or in the overblown, egregious Interview With the Vampire (1993), Jordan seems not to know what he's doing. Lots of people laughed at Interview With the Vampire which was supposed to be a highbrow, multi-layered "literary" picture, but nobody laughed at High Spirits. Jordan's current effort, Michael Collins, stands somewhere in between his great work and his embarrassments. It's a serious film that dares to tackle a difficult subject. But it succeeds at few of its objectives. And though the director has denied the charge with some annoyance, it's hard to understand Michael Collins as anything other than a defense of terrorist homicide.
Apology for Murder
Written and directed by Jordan and based on the life of a leading, early twentieth-century Irish revolutionary, Michael Collins stars Liam Neeson as the title character, a bold and charismatic urban warrior. We meet Collins on the day in 1916 when he and a group of rebels surrender after the Easter Rising, a brief insurrection by Irish republicans against the centuries-old British presence in their Emerald Isle. The leaders of the revolt, with the exception of the American Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), are all executed, and such soldiers as Collins and his best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) serve two-year terms in prison.
When Collins and Boland are released, they immediately return to their revolutionary advocacy, and Collins proves himself a compelling speaker and a superb organizer. Eventually, with De Valera also out of prison, the revolutionaries declare themselves a rump government with De Valera as President of the Irish Republic. This is a conscious fiction, of course, a formal pretext for continued insurrectionist activities. No one except the men in the revolutionary cell have voted for De Valera. But each of the rebels awards himself a title of some kind. Collins and Boland, among others, call themselves Ministers. Meanwhile, the British government, of course, regards all of them as treasonous outlaws.
The first of the film's two turning points comes when Collins determines that Irish independence can only be won if Britain's elaborate system of internal spying is destroyed. Collins declares that anyone collaborating with the Brits will be shot and that any British citizen formally involved in the "occupation" will also become a military target. Those in league with Collins and his newly declared Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) regard their strategy as guerrilla warfare. The British deem it domestic terrorism. Whatever name the tactic goes by, it is depicted as instrumental in forcing the British to rethink their relations with their Irish neighbors. And by 1921, the British offer to enter into negotiations that result in the creation of the Irish Free State.
The treaty which stems from these negotiations, however, though granting the Irish control of their own government, requires the Irish to swear allegiance to the British Crown. More galling, the treaty calls for a partition of the island, with Northern Ireland remaining, as it still remains, an integral part of Great Britain. Divergent responses to this treaty lead directly to the Irish Civil War, a bloody contest that lasts until 1923 and finds Collins on one side and his longtime allies Boland and De Valera on the other.
Jordan develops moments of memorable power in Michael Collins. The emotional response to Collins' speech in which he demands of the crowd, should he be arrested or killed, "Which one of you will take my place?" recalls that moment in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus when hundreds of slaves display their willingness to die for their cause by rising in defiance and declaring one after another, "I am Spartacus." Michael Collins is also lushly photographed by the gifted Chris Menges, rich with period detail supervised by Anthony Pratt and well acted by all involved.
But Jordan's story just doesn't work, either as clear narrative or as a vehicle to explore the repeated connection between violence and independence. In part, the film fails because Jordan so obviously structured his story around conventional Hollywood formulas. In that regard, he introduces Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan, a corner in a love triangle with Boland and Collins. Jordan never manages to integrate this tepid love story into his main narrative, and near the picture's climax, he contrives Kitty's ultimate preference for Collins as the reason for Boland's siding with De Valera. Such a typical Hollywood convention is beneath this picture's loftier ambitions.
Elsewhere, Jordan tries to build suspense out of a long passage where Collins gains entrance to a secured British document depository. But the sequence feels artificial from beginning to end because the director fails ever to clarify what Collins is looking for that he doesn't already know. In addition, the director makes a considerable misstep by failing to establish the extent of British contempt for, degradation of and brutality toward the Irish people. Irish viewers may not need such historical background, but moviegoers less familiar with Irish history will. Instead of capturing a systemic discrimination, Jordan strives to inflame in a passage where a British tank smashes into a football stadium and begins, unprovoked, to fire indiscriminately at players and fans. Whatever actual event this scene is based on (if any), its crude rendering makes it feel false and hysterical.
Still, the film's biggest narrative failure arises from Jordan's construction of his two central figures. In the film's second big plot turn, Collins and De Valera seem to swap politics and personalities. Heretofore, Collins has been the soldier and the advocate of unrestrained ruthlessness; now he becomes a statesman and a proponent of compromise. In the film's first two-thirds, De Valera has been the politician, the unstinting advocate of political approaches to the achievement of independence; now he becomes the unreconstructed revolutionary and a complicit assassin. De Valera's motivations might have been largely those of jealousy, though the film fails to make that case conclusively. Jordan would argue that Collins was always a reluctant warrior, but he fails to make that case adequately either. In the end, we don't know why the two central figures behave as they do, and as a result we are surprisingly unaffected by the film's conclusion.
Easily the most troublesome aspect of Michael Collins, though, is its central political theme. In this regard Jordan has set up a tough challenge for himself. He wants us to admire Michael Collins, reluctantly to accept the necessity of Collins' violent tactics and ultimately, by emphasizing Collins' support for the 1921 treaty, to distinguish Collins from contemporary Irish terrorists who are trying to eject the British from Northern Ireland under the flag of the I.R.A. Certainly Jordan's task is difficult; perhaps it is impossible. Whichever, he never comes close to achieving his ends.
I am deeply concerned about the filmmaker's failure to provide a balanced historical framework. First of all, Jordan fails to acknowledge, even in passing, the role of religion in the centuries-long history of violence and repression in Ireland. Even when the film turns its attention to the treaty of 1921 and the partition which Collins advocates as a necessary compromise, Jordan provides no explanation that the boundaries of the Irish Free State were designed to include all Catholic-majority counties and that Northern Ireland was excluded because of its Protestant majority, which expressly desired to continue its established relationship with Great Britain. In this regard it is probably important to understand that Northern Ireland does not even include all the counties of Ulster. Majority Catholic counties in Ulster, as elsewhere, were assigned to the Free State.
I do not intend the establishment of these concerns to translate into a pro-British reading of Michael Collins. British prejudice toward the Irish had by no means ended by the 1910s. And it's not hard to understand Irish hostility to an armed British presence on their soil, particularly given the long and troubled nature of Irish-British relations. In one manner or another, Ireland had been under British rule since the reign of Henry II in the middle of the twelfth century. Conscious efforts to settle Englishmen on Irish estates began in the sixteenth century and led to a time of particularly brutal repression during the reign of Elizabeth I. Under Oliver Cromwell in the middle of the seventeenth century, nearly two-thirds of the land in Ireland passed into the hands of Protestants, reducing the status of the Catholic majority to that of serfdom. Then, in the 18th century, the British parliament adopted viciously restrictive trade laws that nearly destroyed the Irish economy. Cause for Irish resentment toward the British, in other words, was real and longstanding.
Still, beginning in the nineteenth century, significant steps were taken by the British Parliament toward extending to the Irish people participation in the British democracy. William Pitt, the Younger, secured passage of the Act of Union which effectively incorporated Ireland into Great Britain. Thereafter, until the treaty of 1921, Ireland was included, as Scotland and Northern Ireland are today, as a constituent part of the British nation. In 1829, parliament passed legislation assuring full British citizenship to Roman Catholics, including the right to vote and hold office. And by 1918, at the time Michael Collins got out of jail for his participation in the Easter Rising, Irish voters sent 106 members to the British Parliament.
But Michael Collins makes no mention of any efforts the British made to end discrimination and enter into a partnership with the Irish people, Catholic as well as Protestant. Instead the movie makes it seem there were no available, peaceful, democratic avenues for pursuing Irish concerns, even for pursuing mechanisms for achieving complete Irish independence. Jordan makes much of a scene in which Collins, not long after launching his terrorist campaign, declares his hatred for the British, explaining, "I hate them for leaving us no other way out." History, on the other hand, would suggest that there were other ways out. William Gladstone introduced Irish home rule legislation as early as the 1880s. It's not hard to extrapolate from that fact that Irish independence just might have been achieved by some means other than shooting down unarmed people in the street.
If we took a strictly historical approach to Michael Collins we would find other questions to ask. Why, for instance, did the filmmaker fail to make a character of Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith? It was Griffith, not Collins, who served as lead negotiator of the 1921 treaty. Jordan makes Collins the martyr of the treaty, when his historical role may have been little more than one of its many supporters. But Jordan absolutely deserves the license to build a dramatic story out of historical materials and thus the right to tinker with the details in the service of storytelling. In the end, though, we have an equal right to question his purposes in straying from historical accuracy. Here it would seem that his purpose is to enhance one's view of Michael Collins as a hero. The Michael Collins we meet in this movie may eventually become an advocate of compromise and in that manner a man of peace, but it is essential to remember that he never for a second questions his earlier violent tactics, never for a second wonders whether his ends might have been achievable without bloodshed.
Neil Jordan has protested vehemently that Michael Collins is not intended to be an apology for the I.R.A. And I believe he speaks the truth about his own motivations. For whatever reasons, Collins is his hero, and Collins breaks with the I.R.A. to support policies of compromise and gradualism. But by failing to entertain the possibility that some version of the 1921 treaty could have been achieved without terrorist violence Jordan's movie may serve to excuse in the past what the director himself opposes in the present. In sum, Michael Collins just isn't very well thought out.
The Nature of Man
The weaknesses of Michael Collins are highlighted by thinking about the movie in contrast with Jordan's 1992 film The Crying Game, which also deals with the I.R.A. When he's working at the top of his considerable powers, Jordan doesn't waste a single detail, from his opening with Percy Sledge singing "When a Man Loves a Woman" to the ironic end with Lyle Lovett singing "Stand By Your Man." In the picture's initial passage, a black man named Jody (Forest Whitaker) is attending a contemporary Northern Ireland fair. Trying to capture the affections of a flirtatious blonde, Jody is playing a game of ring toss, hoping to win a stuffed toy. The game requires an element of skill, but an element of luck too. And nothing's what it seems. Jody's seeming good luck is his enduring misfortune. He's a soldier in Britain's controversial army of occupation. The blonde is an operative in the Irish Republican Army. The prize Jody wins isn't a lure to help him catch the lady, but bait in a trap for which he's the quarry.
Chief among the picture's strengths is its dense and surprising plot. (I am assuming that my readers are aware of the crucial moment in the film's narrative which caused so much whispering at the time of the picture's release, but I shall try to protect that passage for those who have yet to see it.) The I.R.A. blonde is a woman named Jude (Miranda Richardson). She lures Jody into an ambush. He's overpowered, bound and held hostage. The I.R.A. is hoping to exchange Jody for one of its own members who has been arrested by the British. During his incarceration, Jody manages to make a human connection with Fergus (Stephen Rea), the man assigned to guard him. Fergus is a believer in the I.R.A.'s goal of driving the British from his homeland. But it's evident he's losing his enthusiasm for the terrorist tactics by which the I.R.A. pursues its objectives. Fergus wants to let Jody know he bears the Brit no personal animus. Fergus treats Jody as kindly as possible given the circumstances; he feeds Jody, frees Jody from wearing a suffocating hood, talks with Jody about their shared passion for cricket and listens to Jody's longing for his hairdresser girlfriend, Dil (Jaye Davidson). In a scene which will resonate throughout the rest of the film, Fergus helps Jody relieve himself, even though this requires Fergus distastefully to hold Jody's penis so that the handcuffed prisoner can urinate without wetting himself.
Despite their connection, Jody is eventually killed, and Fergus is traumatized by his role in his prisoner's death. Afterwards, Fergus disappears from the I.R.A. and starts life anew as a construction worker in London. After a time, he shows up at Dil's salon, lets her cut his hair and gradually allows himself to drift into a relationship with her. His motives are unclear, even to himself. In part, he wants to atone for his guilt over Jody, a guilt, we should note that we never discover in Michael Collins; in part, Fergus is lonely and likes the fact that Dil responds to him. In the end, when the I.R.A. tries to draw Fergus back to its service, he clings to a chosen responsibility for Dil. Thus he does what he can to protect her, even at his own peril.
The Crying Game is not primarily concerned with the turmoil in Northern Ireland. But at least in passing it addresses what's happening there. Though they have volunteered for their duty, Fergus and Jody are nonetheless pawns of ideologies which elude their understanding and trample on their personal interests. Both may be criticized for "joining up," but once they've become soldiers, they're expected to shelve their own human instincts. They become critically connected because neither is willing nor perhaps fundamentally capable of doing so.
In the final analysis, The Crying Game is concerned with the unrest and violence in Northern Ireland only as a metaphor for a more pervasive division in the global community of human beings. In this regard we must focus on a story Jody tells Fergus as they await a decision about Jody's fate. A scorpion who cannot swim asks a frog for a ride across a river on the frog's back. "What's to keep you from stinging me if I let you up on my back?" the leery frog inquires. "If I should sting you," the scorpion rejoins, "then we both would drown." Consoled by that logic, the frog agrees to the scorpion's request. But in the middle of the river, the scorpion stings the frog despite his promise not to. As the frog is dying, he asks why the scorpion has committed an act that will lead to both their deaths. "Because it's in my nature," the scorpion replies.
The question Neil Jordan thus poses in The Crying Game becomes, "What is the nature of man?" Evidence in Northern Ireland suggests that man's nature is that of the scorpion. Men who belong to different clans or different religions will hate and kill each other even at the expense of their own well being. Elsewhere, men who belong to different races or ethnic groups, men who possess different sexual orientations, will brutalize each other for reasons owing to their differences alone. But some men, anyway, men named Mohandas Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr., suggest that human nature includes the non-scorpion-like qualities of compassion and self-sacrifice. In making his own self-sacrifice, Fergus aligns himself with those who reject violent solutions; he repudiates and seeks to atone for the violence of his own past. Michael Collins, in contrast, tries to have it both ways, tries to embrace compromise and peace while clinging to the efficacy of his own violent actions.
Fergus is a member of the I.R.A. that Michael Collins founded. We are not told Fergus's history, but we know he is a volunteer member of an organization that has targeted the innocent in the pursuit of its political objectives. Jody says forthrightly that it's in Fergus's nature to kill. Such is Fergus's struggle to redeem himself, to free himself from Jody's pointed condemnation. But how far is he willing to go? How much can he change himself? The change that is required of him is one that most viewers will find astonishing and some may even deem repellent. But that's Jordan's exact point. Redemption is not easy.
The change required of Fergus, however, is best understood in metaphoric terms. Fergus learns to view the world in a different way. He becomes tolerant in a way heretofore inconceivable. And this is exactly what is required. To be redeemed Fergus must change his nature. But that's exactly what Michael Collins does not do. He changes his tactics, but his nature remains the same.