Michael Collins Review
'It is my considered opinion that the greatness of Michael Collins will be recorded in the fullness of time...and that this will happen at my expense'
Eamonn de Valera, 1962
At the end of every decade, amongst all the 'best of' lists, there are inevitably a few lists that feature 'most underrated' films of the year, decade or century. However, most films that make these lists are small, arthouse films, or alternatively films that have later been revisited on video and DVD. However, Michael Collins did not feature on these lists, being virtually forgotten about since its release, given its blend of controversial subject matter and utter refusal to pander to convention. However, it is also one of the finest films of the decade, and arguably Neil Jordan's best yet (which for a man who has directed End of the Affair, The Butcher Boy, The Company of Wolves, Angel, The Crying Game and Mona Lisa is no mean feat!)
The 'basic' plot is an account of Michael Collins' (Neeson) life from 1916-1920 or thereabouts, and concerns his efforts to free Ireland from the tyranny of British oppression, along with his best friend Harry Boland (Quinn) and an Irish double agent Ned Broy (Rea), but frustrated by the nominal President of Ireland Eamonn de Valera (Rickman) and the British secret service, led by Soames (Dance). There's also a love triangle between Collins, Boland and Kitty Kelley (Roberts, miscast), which does little to enhance the film, but luckily doesn't damage it either.
Neil Jordan has stated 'I will never make a more important film', and in many ways it's possible to agree with his self-assessment. The film is one of the very few 'epic' films that manages to have a convincing blend of the personal and the universal, contrasting Collins' own charisma and spirit with that of the Irish people as a whole. However, Jordan manages to move away from the 'Braveheart' cliches of leaders giving stirring speeches to the populace; there is only one scene like that early in the film, apart from a brief scene of de Valera ranting, with the focus instead being on the sheer horror of the British occupation of Ireland, which could charitably be compared to Nazism, if the film is to be believed. The film is actually remarkably accurate historically in its depiction of British atrocities, with the most infamous scene- a massacre at a football ground- a toned-down version of a real-life event, rather than a sensationalised bloodbath.
Much of the reason why the film is so good is Jordan's script. He's an almost unique director in that his writing is as strong as his direction, meaning that the dialogue in his films doesn't sound at all clunky or anachronistic. He eschews grandstanding speeches for his characters, but manages, with subtle nuances in both dialogue and setting, to hint at depths far greater than are normally explored in film. An obvious example is the final 15 minutes or so of the film, where Jordan makes several interesting artistic decisions with historical fact, but doesn't attempt to bludgeon the audience, instead introducing an element of ambiguity which is entirely in keeping with the rest of the film.
The performances are mostly terrific. Neeson has never been better than as Collins, managing to make him both charming and dangerous; it helps that he bears a resemblance to the real Collins, making his portrayal feel far more realistic than simply an 'impersonation.' Rickman is also good as de Valera, although his Irish accent does sound rather more RSC than Rosenkillen, and Rea (who has appeared in eight films for Jordan so far) is his usual dependable self as Broy. The weakest performances come, unsurprisingly, from the two American actors; Quinn manages to convey much of Boland's decency and honour but isn't helped by a weak accent, and Roberts is little more than set dressing, with only one moment at the end of the film that showcases her talents.
This isn't the sort of film for action film fanatics, anyone who loathes the idea of Irish independence of any sort, or anyone who doesn't like any of Neil Jordan's films for any reason. It's an unapologetically adult film in themes and execution, and doesn't make any sort of concession for that. As I stated above, I believe it to be one of the greatest films of the 1990s; however, its comparative failure at the box office means that re-evaluation, sadly, looks pretty unlikely.
A very early effort from Warner, this is inevitably somewhat lacking as a DVD. For starters, it's a flipper, which devalues it instantly; however, there are no signs of a reissue. More seriously, the picture is flawed. Although anamorphic, it's not of especially good quality, with a lack of sharpness and colour that means that Chris Menges' extraordinary cinematography (a cross between Batman and Once upon a Time in America) isn't fully realised; some of the nighttime scenes look very black, rather than the dark blue obviously intended by Jordan and Menges. It's not a bad transfer, bearing in mind it was almost certainly made from a letterbox widescreen print in the first place; however, it is also considerably less good than a transfer of virtually any modern-day film.
A good 5.1 mix is provided, which does get a good workout in the action and battle scenes, as well as showcasing Elliot Goldenthal's magnificent score nicely. However, dialogue does occasionally sound slightly flat, as well as there being some harshness when the volume is turned up loudly; as with the picture, this is probably inevitable given the DVD's authoring, but is still a slight disappointment.
A fairly good selection are provided here, although the absence of a Jordan commentary is a grievous omission, especially given his willingness to talk about his other films. However, what we have is tolerable. The trailer is pretty standard stuff, missing the fantastic music from the cinema version, and the cast and crew biographies are dated already. Of more interest is Neil Jordan's 'statement', which is a brief text-based account of his intentions in making the film. This is something of an apologia for any perceived historical inaccuracies in the film, albeit justified. Worth a read.
The best extra is the 50-minute long 'South Bank' special on Michael Collins, exploring both the man himself and the film. Inevitably, the section about Collins himself is slightly dumbed-down, refusing to go into detail about his politics or his personal life, but it's interesting background for the real highlight of the documentary, which is a fascinating interview with Jordan and some very interesting behind-the-scenes footage, showing how early 20th-century Dublin was made on a the site of a derelict hospital, and then blown up. The Jordan interview, despite the presence of the obsequious Melvyn Bragg, is a great one, as it goes into detail about some of the liberties he took with history, his own interest in Collins, and his various battles with the studio over the budget. It's very good stuff, and it makes you wish there was more of it.
Well, I'll be frank; the disc has some very heavy strikes against it. The transfer's mediocre, the sound's OK but a bit flawed, the disc's a flipper and the extras are a bit limited. However, for anyone interested in the film, it's the best version currently available, and recommended as such. Meanwhile, here's to hoping that Jordan decides to revisit it in a few years, preferably with some of the deleted scenes present in the script which are sadly absent here.