Michael Collins (review)

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History and Herstory

[Spoilers ahead.]

Michael Collins was a revolutionary, a patriot. At the risk of oversimplifying, Collins was kinda an Irish George Washington — he wanted to kick some British butt in aid of independence for his country. His story is full of drama and great personalities and stuff blowing up — it’s amazing his life hasn’t been told in film sooner.

It was worth waiting for, though. History being written, of course, by the winning side, Collins has been cast as a terrorist rather than a hero, but Michael Collins, written and directed by Neil Jordan, sets some of the record straight without sainting Collins or portraying him as anything less than flawed and human.
The film opens with the death of Collins (Liam Neeson) in 1922, then jumps back to the Easter Uprising of 1916, which Collins participated in, and follows him as he leads the Irish Republican Army (not the IRA as we know it today) through the bloody skirmishes that led to his negotiation of the treaty with Britain in 1921 that created the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It’s great soap opera, really — there’s Collins’s lieutenant, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), faithful until he takes the other side in a power struggle between Collins and the crafty politician Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman); there’s the traitorous Ned Broy (Stephen Rea), victim of the British tactic of turning Irish against Irish; and there’s Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts — aack), the lovely young lass who falls for both Collins and Boland.

And it’s with Kiernan that my one problem with Michael Collins arises — although, surprisingly enough, my beef isn’t with Julia Roberts, as it so often is. I haven’t got a problem with her because she has nothing to do. Kitty Kiernan must have been an extraordinary woman to love both these unusual men, and for both Collins and Boland to be so taken with her — but we learn nothing at all about her. What was so wonderful about her that Collins and Boland both fell for her? Why did Kiernan love either of these men, doing their best to get themselves killed?

Unfortunately, Michael Collins treats as given that a man — or men — will love a woman simply because she is beautiful. There are enough scenes of Kiernan standing around trying to look supportive that Jordan must have intended for the viewer the accept as fact that Kiernan was a major player in the lives of both Collins and Boland, yet he allows her to be merely a cardboard standup.

Not so the relationship between Collins and Boland. There’s more “romance” in their friendship and comradeship than between either of them and Kitty. When Boland abandons Collins for De Valera’s camp, the new rift between Boland and Collins seems more hurtful to both men than when Kiernan finally chose Collins over Boland.

But this is nothing new for pop culture. Men’s stories — whether they’re about wars or football or rearranging the power tool collection — are perceived as historically important and universally appealing, while women’s stories are just chick stuff.

Don’t let me turn you off Michael Collins with my moaning. It’s still worth seeing.

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