Writer / director Neil Jordan has had something of a rollercoaster career, scoring enormous critical, influential and even financial successes, with films made at home in the UK and Ireland (including The Company of Wolves), but generally running adrift when he’s tried to replicate that success Stateside. Michael Collins was his first film after the lukewarm Interview with the Vampire; itself following Jordan’s surprise hit The Crying Game. Coming three years after Jim Sheridan’s highly acclaimed In the Name of the Father, Jordan was able to bag the budget he required to properly tell the story of the birth of the IRA as we know it (there are something like 4,000 extras involved in this) – and Michael Collins is easily his most impassioned and best film.
Liam Neeson is Collins, a freedom fighter in Northern Ireland who first comes to our attention during the Easter Rising of 1916. The film then charts the course of the next six years, essentially following three relationships of Collins’; with his second-in-command Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), and the woman who shares their affections, Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts, attempting to redefine her career in the wake of Pretty Woman). Most importantly, Jordan draws the distinctions between the aims and methods of Collins and his president Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), the relationship that is basically responsible for the tragedy inherent in the story.
Neeson, in his forties portraying a man who died before his thirtieth birthday, nonetheless brings a youthful, cocky charm to the de facto Irish leader, and while Collins’ keen intelligence isn’t as clear, the actor does demonstrate why so many were so willing to follow Collins into battle. The supporting cast are excellent, but for the occasional dodgy Irish accent, although the concentration on Collins’ and Boland’s relationship with Kitty does detract from the main story, suggesting Jordan was keen to court a mainstream audience to a film that didn’t need a “Hollywood romance”. In fact, in this improved transfer (the 20th anniversary edition finally replaces Warners’ early flipper disc release), both the film’s strengths and weaknesses are emphasised; the intercutting between Collins and Kitty’s developing bond during Collins’ “night of the long knives” is almost a distraction too far, and Jordan’s problems with pacing and narrative consistency are as apparent here as elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Michael Collins is a significant achievement, a project imbued with a righteous anger that surfaced two years before the Good Friday Agreement was reached. While history might have been condensed and occasionally subject to supposition (the facts surrounding Collins’ death have never been fully established), this is a powerful story and one that has been told about as well as it might have been. A very welcome reissue.
Special Features: trailer / deleted scenes / director’s commentary / Neil Jordan interview / South Bank Show
MICHAEL COLLINS (20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: NEIL JORDAN / SCREENPLAY: NEIL JORDAN / STARRING: LIAM NEESON, JULIA ROBERTS, AIDAN QUINN, ALAN RICKMAN, IAN HART, STEPHEN REA, CHARLES DANCE / RELEASE DATE: 7TH MARCH