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Irish Republican Angst

Michael Collins examines the man behind the IRA

Jordan borrows a few pages from Francis Coppola's The Godfather, most obviously during a sequence that contrasts a quiet interlude with Collins and his beloved Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts) with a series of killings by the Irish Volunteers. You have to give Jordan credit, though -- he knows enough to pilfer from the best. Michael Collins is moodily photographed in gray, overcast tones by cinematographer Chris Menges, and comes very close to matching Coppola's masterwork in terms of conveying a sense of a terrible destiny unfolding with unforgiving inevitability.

Even so, Jordan could have given us more. While dashing through the historical events that Collins shaped, and was shaped by, the filmmaker resorts to sketchiness and simplification. It isn't clear just who is responsible for some of the violent reprisals against the Volunteers and their sympathizers -- British forces? the paramilitary Black and Tans? a rogue band of Hollywood B movie villains? -- and it's even less clear what role Collins is playing in the new Irish Free State government during a civil war against his former comrades. Jordan has drawn fire for hinting that Eamon De Valera, played with scene-stealing imperiousness by Alan Rickman, was at least indirectly responsible for Collins' assassination in 1922. (The movie indicates, and many historians agree, that De Valera deliberately made Collins appear to be a traitor for negotiating the treaty that led to the end of British rule and the partition of Ireland.) But such speculative interpretation is almost impossible to avoid in this type of movie. What should have been avoided is the Old Hollywood hokum of a romantic triangle. In the world according to Jordan, Collins must vie with his dear comrade-in-arms, Harry Bolland (Aidan Quinn), for the affections of pretty Kitty Kiernan. That Julia Roberts has a difficult time sustaining an Irish accent only serves to make this malarkey all the more bogus.

Even so, despite its shortcomings and simplifications, Michael Collins is an impressive piece of work. More important, it is profoundly moving in the way it makes us see that this story is but the prologue for the seemingly endless internecine warfare that continues to blight Ireland. Collins ultimately was consumed by the fires he ignited. And those fires continue to blaze in the hearts of those who are far less careful about how much blood they spill.

Michael Collins.
Directed by Neil Jordan. With Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman and Julia Roberts.

Rated R.
138 minutes.

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