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Saturday, 30 July 2011

Irish Film Marathon: Part 3

In my previous review, I compared Michael Collins to The Wind That Shakes The Barley and it didn't come out very favourably, but the truth is it is far from being a bad film. In fact it's a very good one that is extremely close to being great.

Michael Collins is directed by Neil Jordan, which may come as some surprise to those used to seeing his name on films such as The Crying Game and others, but Jordan clearly shows his versatility here as he directs a big Hollywood blockbuster with some of the biggest stars of the time.
It was released in 1996 to largely positive reviews and became the highest grossing film in Ireland, to be beaten only by Titanic sever years later.
However it failed to gain the success it aimed for, as it grossed only 16 million worldwide on a budget of 28 million and positive but not exceptional reviews (77% on RT.)
Is this because the subject was not of interest to international audiences? I suppose Michael Collins is not particularly well known outside of Ireland despite his massive fame here. But I would have thought the big names involved would have been enough to at least guarantee a small profit. But apparently that was not the case.
However I do consider a rather overlooked film that deserves more appreciation for it's many positive aspects. It certainly is better than a lot of the similar historical/biographical films being made around the same time such as Braveheart and to a lesser extent, Gladiator.

Michael Collins is a well made but relatively shallow film. It relies more on it's elaborate set designs, fantastic scenery and many stars rather than on a strong story.
This however is not evident while watching the film, as it is filled with gripping and exciting scenes and moves along at a great pace despite it's length of well over 2 hours. It is well shot and contains many scenes that are quite breathtaking in their scale and execution.
But if only it had been done with more care and thought for the subject matter instead of revolving into a film that practically glorifies Michael Collins and his men.

Calling this film a biopic would be misleading, it does not offer a comprehensive study of Michael Collins' life and personalty, but rather uses him as a way to explore the times and the conflict. The way this was handled was slightly disappointing in my opinion, as they continuously had to connect the events with Michael Collins' experiences of them, thus taking a great many liberties with the historical facts.
This leads to some of the films worst scenes, such as the scene of Michael Collins and Kitty kissing and such intercut with various murders and attacks carried out by Collins' men or the scene in which Michael Collins is ambushed intercut with scenes of Kitty getting ready for their marriage.But interestingly it also makes for some of the films best scenes, as it greatly increases the drama and overall impact of the scenes in a way that wasn't really necessary in my opinion but is still rather impressive to watch.
The reason I don't find this addition of drama and focus on action and thrills very useful is because I find the conflict to have been dramatic enough as it is, but obviously it wasn't up to the standards of the studios, and thus we get a pointless romantic subplot, a excess of action scenes, many highly dramatised scenes and an oversimplification of the events and characters.
The film essentially sacrifices historical accuracy for entertainment, but you may be tempted to think this is a good thing, that if you wanted historical accuracy you'd watch a documentary, but in my opinion I would rather have watched a film that had spent less on spectacular explosions and such and had instead developed and expounded on some of the various themes and ideas in the film that weren't executed interestingly. Room for this could have been made by abandoning the romantic sub plot, which was included entirely for dramatic purposes as it has little effect on the story, and by extension the relationship between Michael Collins and his right hand man, they are both in love with the same woman, and when the Civil War comes about the right hand man chooses to side with Collins' enemies rather than his former friend, and it is obvious this is more than partly because of his ill fated romance. If the sub plot had been done away with, the desertion of his former ally would have been far more dramatic and would have portrayed just how split Ireland and it's inhabitant's were by the Civil War, instead it seems more like an act of revenge than anything else, even if that may not be how the director intended it.

Alan Rickman's De Valera (President of Ireland) is portrayed as a villain, this is presumably why Rickman was chosen for the part, as after all he isn't well known for his sympathetic characters is he?
This portrayal was of course rather inaccurate and highly dramatised in order to create a hero (Michael Collins) villain (De Valera) conflict. I found this a bit to predictable and overly simplified, possibly to appeal to wider audiences.

Some of the accusations laid against The Wind That Shakes The Barley were that it romanticised it's characters, and made of these Irish fighters romantic heroes. This is an accusation that should be directed at Michael Collins.
It creates a larger than life character with Michael Collins and portrays him and his men in the most sympathetic light possible. The fact remains that when the English were repelled, Michael Collins and his men effectively replaced them in brutality and conducted a brutal clamp down against those who continued the fight, of course I do not support those who continued fighting at all, but I couldn't help but feel that portraying Michael Collins and his men as heroes was very heavy handed as they carried out their fair share of atrocities.
The film presents a version of Irish history that has been modified and tweaked to suit the demands of international audiences, making it to "black and white", to romantic and far to action filled.
I've mentioned that the romantic sub plot detracts from the films impact, well the same is true for the action scenes, which are fast paced, thrilling and very well done, but nonetheless make the film at times much to like an action film rather than a film attempting to shed insight upon a very complex conflict or even a film attempting to tell of a man's life.
But as I said before, the film fails as a biopic, as it provides absolutely no insight as to why Michael Collins is in this situation in the first place, what made him such a fervent fighter for his country and such a determined leader of the revolution. Sure we are shown that he was courageous, charming and humble, but I believe they failed to give a completely rounded portrayal of the man. This is an exceptionally hard thing for a film to portray, but perhaps it should have concentrated more on this nevertheless.

But despite all my various complaints about the film handling of the subject, it nonetheless succeeds in capturing the era beautifully, capturing the general atmosphere of the times and crafting a film that is both impressive from a technical point of view, and that tells a great story. For it may be inaccurate but it is still very well told, and paced in a way that makes it fly by in a thrilling manner.
Neil Jordan proves yet again to be a most talented director and has definitely earned his place as one of Ireland foremost directors. He puts his large budget to full use and is never afraid to capture his recreations of the times in as impressive a manner as possible.

One of the films greats strengths is it's cast, an impressive ensemble containing both Irish and English talents, such as Liam Neeson in the titular role and Aidan Quinn as his right hand man, Harry. Alan Rickman as De Valera and many more familiar names such as the always excellent and always underrated Stephan Rea, the great Brendan Gleeson and even Jonathan Rys Meyers in a small but crucial role, many more familiar faces pop up throughout the film and I wouldn't want to reveal all of them.
Julia Roberts is the only American member of the cast I believe, and was obviously included to add some star power, this becomes expectationally obvious when one remembers that at the time she was having a high profile relationship with Liam Neeson. As for her performance, not particularly bad but rather out of place and distracting, she just didn't really belong in the film.
The performances are what makes this film worth watching, of course it has many other fine elements, but its exceptionally talented cast are the main attraction. Liam Neeson was at the peak of his career when this was made, having made Schindler's List a few years previously, for his performance as Michael Collins he received far fewer honours than for his performance as Oscar Schindler, but think it's easily the second best work of his career. Sadly his career took a downward turn from which he has yet to recover, these days he's an excellent actor stuck in mediocre films.
As with most biopics, an awful lot hinges revolves around whether or not the main actor can pull off the performance, this is what makes or breaks a biopic.
Fortunately, Liam Neeson is extremely charismatic, very tall and imposing (Michael Collins was nicknamed the Big Fellow), and most importantly Irish. he gets the role perfectly right and deserved more recognition for the performance than he actually got.

All in all, Jordan's obvious talent and experience, combined with a fantastic cast, a highly interesting subject and some well written dialogue makes for a very enjoyable viewing experience but lacks the power and brutal honesty of The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Read the previous review here if you missed it.
Nest up is Angela's Ashes, the lowest reviewed film of the marathon.

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