To state the obvious, this is a Hollywood Treatment, even though it was produced in Ireland. While watching this film, I was never allowed to lose sight of the fact that it’s loaded with movie stars and familiar faces. Gosh, I thought to myself. Michael Collins and his girlfriend Kitty are both amazingly good-looking! The real-life Collins was by no means an ill-favored chap, and appeared quite dashing when his photo was taken from the best angle.
But he was no Liam Neeson. A similar observation can be made of the attractive Kitty Kiernan in relation to Julia Roberts. Both Neeson and Roberts look utterly ravishing in this film and are surprisingly well-dressed. Kitty’s clothing, especially, is always crisp, new, and extremely stylish. Furthermore she is perfectly made up and coiffed in every scene. Yes, the film is in every way a contrast to the “gritty realism” of Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which treats the same events from a non-Dublin-centric (and non-star-centric) point of view.
As for Eamon de Valera, after watching the film I was convinced that Mr. Ciarán Hinds would have been far better cast in that role than Alan Rickman. I can see why Rickman was cast, because there is a superficial resemblance. De Valera was not a particularly attractive man, but thanks to his Cuban father, he had a certain darkly magnetic quality when he was young. I noticed a serious issue with Rickman’s accent, which is all over the place. Sometimes he sounds just like Snape, sometimes he gets in a rather Irish inflection or two, and the rest of the time his accent (to my ear) sounds vaguely Spanish. (The historical De Valera was born in the US, but at the age of two emigrated to Ireland with his Irish mother; his father died when he was three.) Mr. Hinds could no doubt have provided De Valera with a proper Limerick accent (and plenty of darkly magnetic fascination).
The other and more crucial issue is that Rickman gives De Valera an odd, fussy, almost swishy persona that is very Snapelike but not particularly suited to De Valera. Part of this is the script, which seeks to heroize Collins at De Valera’s expense. In fact, whatever his flaws may have been, De Valera was an extremely strong personality, successful as a military and political leader, who remained active in Irish politics to the end of his long life (he died aged 92 in 1975). The De Valera of this film is not particularly likable (which is rare in such a successful politician) and seems anything but a man of action. According to Roger Ebert, the movie “portrays De Valera as a weak, mannered, sniveling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed in, and over, Ireland.”
Collins on the other hand is portrayed as a highly active type (playing to the strengths of Liam Neeson), a large man of great charisma, physical courage and masculine confidence. And indeed, the historical Collins was known as “the Big Fella.” He brought the British Empire to the bargaining table, and history has proved that he was right to endorse the Irish Free State, thus opting for peace and a chance for further progress over endless war with the British. But from all I can discover, the reality is also that Collins was more an administrator and orator than a man of action. Although many pictures show him in military uniform, he didn’t generally lead raids and military actions himself; rather, he sent other men out to perform assassinations. This is clear even in the film, where he hides in a hotel room with Kitty as his men perform round after round of drive-by shootings and other cold-blooded executions. By contrast, De Valera is depicted as a fool for wanting to confront the enemy using traditional military tactics and codes of honor. Indeed, the film is quite violent and contains many cringe-inducing scenes. The Long-Suffering Husband commented that the whole thing reminded him of The Godfather! That was a very perceptive comment, as the war seems to have operated on the principle of attack/reprisal and an seemingly endless cycle of vengeance.
The film might have risen from the level of simple hagiography to a truly absorbing portrait, if the conflict between Collins and De Valera had been more that of equals, and if Collins’ taste for inflicting mayhem (mostly at a distance) had been portrayed as disturbing and ambiguous rather than heroic and manly. And just imagine a heroic battle of wills played out between Hinds and Neeson, close friends in real life. It would be riveting. At least when they weren’t cracking each other up.
The supporting actors are excellent. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Aidan Quinn as Michael’s beloved friend Harry Boland (though Quinn sounds utterly American), and Stephen Rea as the brave “inside man” at the Castle, who pays a terrible price for passing information to Collins. (I was quite relieved to learn that the real-life Ned Broy was not in fact executed but lived to a ripe old age.) Most entertaining of all was a scene where Charles Dance appears as Soames, the ominously efficient new head of MI5 in Dublin. In the privacy of his bedchamber, a shirtless Soames reveals a gorgeously modeled male torso. It gave me a new appreciation for Tywin Lannister!
Related articles: lots of interesting bits and pieces lately about the historical Collins and De Valera.
- Michael Collins probably died a virgin says history professor (irishcentral.com)
- Let’s Not Judge Dev too Harshly (ericfarrell.wordpress.com)
- No historical basis for Michael Collins as latter-day ‘macho man’ (irishtimes.com)
- “Let us recognize a noble heart even if we must sometimes question its worldly wisdom.” (pauleisen.blogspot.com)