Opened: October 25, 1996 | Rated: R
Director Neil Jordan conquered the critics in 1992 with "The Crying Game" and the box office with "Interview With the Vampire" in 1994. With those films on his resume, he was finally able to find backing for his 10-year pet project, "Michael Collins," about the birth of Irish independence and the Irish Republican Army.
A controversial but critical success in the British Isles, it is a rich, dramatic history lesson that is likely to leave folks in American audiences turning to each other asking "Who are these people?"
A working knowledge of Irish history is a prerequisite for this film. While it is an honest depiction of the violence and terrorism that won Ireland partial independence in 1922, it is not a sweeping story of romantic heroism like, say, "Braveheart," which still captivated those who knew nothing of Scotland's past.
Michael Collins (Liam Neeson), one of the leaders of the Irish civil war, is not a dashing champion. He is a man who fights dirty guerrilla battles, and the film pulls no punches here.
Opening with Collins' brief imprisonment after the 1916 Easter uprising, on the day he is released from prison he preaches rebellion on street corners and meets his compatriots Harry Boland (Adian Quinn) and Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman), Ireland's insolent rebel president with whom Collins regularly butts heads.
Through the help of a turncoat inside the colonial government (Stephen Rea), Collins engineers several brazen attacks on the British occupational forces and dozens of assassinations that eventually bring the crown to the bargaining table.
Exquisitely photographed in misty winter tones and with a certain amount of grandeur, Jordan clearly put his heart into this picture.
It is a compelling story that will likely transfix those who know the history of the conflict. But the action, emotion and tension of "Michael Collins" don't transcend the screen in a way that will engage the uninitiated.
Once England backs down, President De Valera sends Collins to negotiate a treaty knowing that compromises will have to be made. The result is Ireland's sovereignty but not her independence, which de Valera blames squarely on Collins.
The raucous Irish parliament meetings that follow ring with authenticity, complete with the shouting matches traditional in Commonwealth politics. But the romantic triangle sub-plot involving Collins, Boland and Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts) isn't nearly as engaging. The rivalry between the two men is, however, pivotal and therefore necessary.
"Michael Collins" has all the goods -- driven characters, a struggle of historic proportions and admirable performances from Neeson, Rickman and Rea -- but more needed to be done to establish the story's background. Without clear motivation, we are expected to sympathize with characters we hardly know.
And they are difficult to understand. The accents affected are at worst unintelligible and at best take some getting used to. Either way, this dialogue difficulty is amplified by poor sound design that has the spoken words buried under effects and music.