Reviewed by Gary Crowdus
Produced by Stephen Woolley; written and directed by Neil Jordan; cinematography by Chris Menges; edited by J. Patrick Duffner and Tony Lawson; production design by Anthony Pratt; music by Elliot Goldenthal; starring Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman, and Julia Roberts. DVD, color, 132 min., 1996. A Warner Archive Collection release.
It’s taken nearly twenty years since the film’s first DVD release in 1997, but the new Warner Archive edition of this widescreen historical epic is the first DVD of the film enhanced for 16 x 9 screens. I’m certainly not alone in believing that Michael Collins—which Neil Jordan regards as the most important film he ever made—should be honored with a supplements-loaded Blu-ray edition, and perhaps The Criterion Collection or some other enterprising distributor will one day come to the rescue, but at least for now viewers can see the film in its full-screen 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Jordan dramatizes the short but eventful life of his eponymous protagonist (portrayed by Liam Neeson) to tell the story of the most politically contentious and bloodily violent period in modern Irish history, from the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence to the 1921 treaty negotiations with Great Britain—which led to the controversial partition of the country into a six-county Northern Ireland controlled by Great Britain and a twenty-six county Irish Free State—and the resulting Civil War between proponents and opponents of that treaty. Collins was at the center of events throughout the entire period, beginning with his participation as an Irish Volunteer in the ill-fated Easter rebellion at the General Post Office in Dublin. Following his release from prison in 1917, he returned to Dublin where he played leading roles in the newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Fein. In 1922, when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Free State Army and the Irish Civil War was winding down, Collins was killed during an inspection tour of his native County Cork. He was thirty-one years old.
Michael Collins was a long-delayed dream project for Irish writer-director Jordan, who wrote the first of several screenplays for the film in 1982, but for which he repeatedly found it impossible to secure the financing. As Jordan has recounted, over a twelve-year period he would write and submit a new version of the script, then go off to make a new film while waiting for the usually sluggish response from studio heads. It was not until 1995, following the declaration of an indefinite ceasefire by the IRA (not to mention Jordan’s box-office success with Interview with the Vampire and Liam Neeson’s rise to fame with Schindler’s List), that Warner Bros. deemed the climate more favorable for the funding of such a politically controversial project. Throughout the filming, in fact, Jordan was acutely aware of the then-ongoing peace process, which would eventually culminate in the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which called for the decommissioning of arms by the IRA and other paramilitary groups. As Jordan recalls, “The process was eerie in the way a whole series of contemporary events paralleled the ones in the past we were filming.”
Not surprisingly, Michael Collins became the subject of political controversy in the British press, even before some critics had seen the film, with the most vociferous attacks condemning it as “pro-IRA propaganda” and an “anti-British travesty,” with at least one newspaper editorial calling for the film to be banned. It received more thoughtful critical response in Ireland, where the film broke box-office records, since it provided a forum for the public discussion of important but often taboo historical issues. While Michael Collins necessarily used some dramatic license in its interpretation, Jordan, a former student of history at University College Dublin, defended his film as “accurate to the broad course of the events it depicts,” a view with which most historians, whether British or Irish, concurred.
The film is in fact far from a romanticized portrait of the real-life Irish nationalist leader. It dramatizes his genius in devising counterintelligence activities and employing urban guerrilla tactics, and depicts not only his personal charm and charisma but also his absolute ruthlessness in conducting warfare, including his masterminding of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in which IRA gunmen simultaneously assassinated nineteen British intelligence agents in their homes. As Jordan characterized his dramatist’s approach to the historical narrative, “The villain and the hero in this piece are merged into one.” (For a more extensive analysis of the film, see this author’s article, “The Screenwriting of Irish History: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins,” in Cineaste, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Spring 1997.)
In addition to Liam Neeson’s compelling performance, Michael Collins is distinguished by the outstanding cinematography of award-winning director of photography Chris Menges—who throughout the film imaginatively uses natural light sources as well as visually re-creating the sooty bluish pall that coal-burning fires cast over Dublin nights—and one of Elliot Goldenthal’s most memorable scores, with hauntingly dissonant orchestrations successfully blending with romantic melodies (often for solo trumpet or piano) and Sinead O’Connor vocals.
One unexpected downside of viewing (or re-viewing) Michael Collins today is to be reminded of that perennial complaint of many accomplished actors about the lack of quality scripts and meaningful projects. In this regard, it’s sad to see that Neeson has in the last decade become stereotyped in a series of commercially successful but mindlessly violent revenge dramas such as Taken, Taken 2, and Taken 3, or in spin-off roles as private eyes or mob hit men in generic urban thrillers. Irish Echo film critic Michael Gray, in a witty response to what he describes as “the Irish actor’s career reboot as a flawed by righteous action hero,” has devised a new ratings system solely for Neeson’s new screen persona, exemplified by his rating for Run All Night, the actor’s latest exercise in brutal carnage: “Graphic gun violence, urban mayhem, and rampant destruction of public and private property.”
On the other hand, perhaps contemporary fans of Neeson’s performances as a violent character with “a particular set of skills” might benefit from seeing the portrayal by a younger but just as forceful Neeson in Michael Collins, a historical film that, in contrast, offers an ethically challenging, dramatically responsible, and historically accurate treatment of the resort to violence in pursuit of a cause.
Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.
To purchase the Warner Archive DVD of Michael Collins, click here.
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