The part played by Michael Collins in Irish history is controversial to say the least and while history (and one Eamon de Valera) has come to recognise his significance, the animosity that is still felt today among many citizens of Ireland proved his biography a tricky task to commit to celluloid. Neil Jordan’s labour of love to his homeland proved itself adept in storytelling even if its deviations from fact polarised opinions pro-Collins, or rather anti-Dev further. For international audiences not initiated in the emerald Isle’s very recent and tragic past, the film’s politically explosive potential probably passed by without raising its ugly head. Considering however that the effects of the early 1920s can still be felt to this day and that an IRA ceasefire was wishful thinking in the mid 90s, it highly recommended the viewer crash-course themselves before watching this.
Beginning in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, The film sets out to recount the final years of Michael Collins’ life through struggles for Irish independence and the resultant civil war. This sees him take charge of the fledgeling Irish Republican Army as the “Minister for General Mayhem” in the newly formed rebel cabinet, to hurt the British occupants in any way possible. Through a system of counter-intelligence, guerilla warfare and terrorism his efforts, though effective, prove exceedingly dangerous, and increasingly ruthless and bloody. Played with vigour and great spirit by Liam Neeson in one of the best roles of his career, this portrayal of Collins thankfully does not overly sweeten his role as a terrorist, balancing instead his personal life and friendship with Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) to root audience sympathy. His relationship with Kathy Kiernan helps this also, although the choice of Julia Roberts for the role is questionable. The initial ally but ultimately political opponent of Collins, Eamon de Valera is played with usual relish by Alan Rickman who sees him as potentially dangerous. Using Collins as a pawn in the eventual negotiations with the British empire, de Valera is primarily portrayed as the villain, a position that is debatable historically but holds more truth than some would like. Overall the ensemble does a good job, no dodgy accents for example and the pairing of Neeson and Quinn in particular makes it all worthwhile.
The most unsung hero of “Michael Collins” is Neil Jordan however. Shooting in Ireland, at authentic locations as well as Ardmore studios, not only does everything look fantastic, Jordan has managed to create a historical epic that is easily viewable as a war or drama film even without being steeped in background knowledge. It is a human tale much more than a political one, even if its protagonist had a weighty impact on the fate of a country, and will make this the pulling point for most audiences. That it also functions as excellent intrigue and thriller viewing, with a generous dose of – mainly dark – humour only shows the delicate balance that Jordan has successfully walked here. His detractors will mainly scorn the blurring of history and reality, particularly the film’s climax at Béal na mBláth. While the events onscreen do enter the realms of fiction at this point, the impact of the film is not diminished in any way by it. “Michael Collins” remains the most impressive and fascinating portrayal of one of the most significant Irishmen and a top-grade historical picture. Yet, despite being hugely popular in Ireland and positive reactions from critics, the film was not a great success abroad, a real shame.
After “Interview With the Vampire” Jordan continued his collaboration with composer Elliot Goldenthal on “Michael Collins.” The resultant score is one of Goldenthal’s most easily accessible, not troubled by overbearing dissonance that prevents many of his works from reaching mainstream exposure. It’s a large-scale orchestral score, with Irish elements inserted through some soloist performances but never falling into cliche traps or becoming endlessly repetitive like some of James Horner’s celtic meanderings. Known best for an arrangement of “She Moved Through the Fair” performed by Sinéad O’Connor, the soundtrack album makes every cue into a highlight, from an energised bagpipe performance in “Winter Raid” to much more militaristic brass and percussion in “Fire and Arms” and “Football” and beautiful piano for “Collins’ Proposal.” In summation, it is a very appropriate and epic score for a film that could ask for no less and was rightly nominated for an Oscar. Highly recommended.
The best way to watch “Michael Collins” is in the company of Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” for the complete picture of political happenings as well as the impact on normal citizens. However, even on its own, Neil Jordan’s film is something not to be missed for any enthusiast of Irish history or fans of good films.