Retro Review: Michael Collins (1996).
Director Neal Jordan’s biopic of the revolutionary Irish freedom fighter is rightly a classic in the genre.
Michael Collins may not be the most award winning film to come out of Ireland about the Irish Revolutionary War, but it’s widely regarded as one of the best. Liam Neeson, surrounded by a fantastic ensemble cast, gives an impassioned performance as Collins. While the script treats the creation of the Irish Republic through a simplistic moral lens, the story is nonetheless riveting.
Michael Collins (1996).
Ireland, under the control of occupying British forces for centuries, is roiled with violence. Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) is freedom fighter rising through the ranks of the Irish Republican Army when they are dealt a bitter defeat. Along with the movements leader De Velera (Alan Rickman) and Collins’ best friend, Harry (Aidan Quinn), most of the movement’s top men are jailed, or worse.
Upon release, Collins vows to free Ireland of occupation, by any means necessary. His violent and ruthless guerilla war finally forces the British to recognize Ireland, but the toll in blood and family is high indeed.
One aspect of Jordan’s film that I found fascinating was that the film is more akin to Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables than a sweeping historical war drama. To capture the hit and run methods of Collins’ IRA and the escalating violence from both the Irish and British forces, Jordan uses montage extensively. Even with a two hour run time and an intricate story, the film always feels to be moving relentlessly onward.
One blind side the film has is that it boils the fraught story of the Irish War of Independence and Michael Collins’ role in it with a definite bias. There is quite a bit of lip service paid to the moral grey area Collins chooses to wage his war in, but it mostly exists to vindicate the man instead of interrogate him. Rickman’s De Valera is reduced to an effete and jealous onlooker so that Neeson’s Collins can stand that much taller. It doesn’t feel like a full fledged hagiography or a simplistic jingoist hero film (such as most of Mel Gibson’s historical biopics), but it doesn’t hide the fact its got a dog in the fight.
…in Love and War.
90% of Michael Collins is a tightly paced, gripping drama. The 10% left over is the lackluster love story between Neeson’s Collins and Julia Roberts‘ Kitty Kiernan. Roberts is solid in her role, but there’s zero chemistry between her and Neeson, and it feels forced. Indeed, it was forced, as an outbreak of violence between Britain and Ireland forced the film to be delayed. The studio took the extra time to reshoot, making the love story more prominent.
Criticisms aside, the film succeeds on the strength of a stellar cast, solid script, and Jordan’s expert pacing. Michael Collins feels like a piper’s tune that whips you always onward, stopping just before the point of exhaustion with a respite of character development before rushing on again. The result is a relentless drama, punctuated with both pathos and violence. Much like the charismatic figure at its heart, Michael Collins looks to whip you up and plunge you into the action.