Michael Collins (1996)

Michael Collins (1996), written and directed by Neil Jordan.

A rich-looking, meticulous reproduction of the time and place, the presentation of a short violent life: national hero to the Irish Republicans, terrorist to the Unionists, a complex and mysterious character to just about everyone.

It is a history of an exceptionally vicious conflict, told from the Irish Republican point of view. I'm sure other stories could be told. (For an amused, more jaundiced review, see Mark Steyn's Michael Collins. The director admits the historical inaccuracies, but says that is inevitable in any film. He doesn't try to excuse his own national bias: not worth discussing, I suppose.

Liam Neeson plays Collins as remembered by the people who knew him: larger than life, funny and profane, skilled in the creation of "mayhem", his word for assassinations and guerrilla warfare. People still wonder: did he like the killing too much? Was it even necessary, or could independence have been achieved by other means?

Alan Rickman plays Éamon de Valera with schoolmasterly intensity. Jordan says his screenplay is not very kind to de Valera, but "the film chooses its own villain". He wished he could have found some way of showing other sides to an admittedly devious politician who was an Irish statesman for many decades afterwards.

The love triangle with characters played by Julia Roberts and Aidan Quinn is true history. And she really was buying her wedding dress on the day Collins was killed.

This happened after the Irish War of Independence (more like gangland warfare) had been won. The Irish broke into factions and fought the short sharp Irish Civil War. Collins was killed by his enemies -- former comrades -- in that fighting.

(As an aside, analysis I saw a while ago: revolutionary movements are often broad diverse fronts, but are usually taken over by the most extreme, ideologically disciplined faction. That was the case in the French Revolution, in Russia, Spain, Nicaragua. The other supporters of the revolution are then suppressed or eliminated. The Irish Civil War is a counter-example. The pro-Treaty faction was the more moderate group and they annihilated the radicals. Collins was killed but his side won).

The film received great support from the city of Dublin and the original buildings and rooms were used when possible. Despite the violence the film was given a softer rating so children could see it for its historical value.

Julia Roberts sings She Moved Through The Fair, later reprised by Sinéad O'Connor and incorporated into the score.

I had not appreciated Elliot Goldenthal's fine score until I heard it again while listening to the Blu-ray commentary track separately.

Photographed by Chris Menges (The Mission (1986)).

Available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. The director's commentary was recorded 20 years after the film was made. He says he wrote the screenplay 20 years before that.

His own view of Collins is more dispassionate and critical than one might suspect. A lesson we should all remember: the story the author writes does not necessarily represent the author's opinion.