By an odd coincidence, I watched Braveheart on the same day as Michael Collins, which offered, by way of contrast, a useful insight into why Neil Jordan’s influential biopic of one of the heroes of Ireland’s fight for independence just doesn’t work.
Michael Collins begins with the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent shootings in Kilmainham Gaol, which caused public favour to fall behind the revolutionary nationalists. The film then jumps forward to 1918 and the beginnings of the War of Independence and then into the Treaty, which caused the partition of Ireland as well as the end of the war. Shortly after came the Irish Civil War between the pro-Treaty government of the Irish Republic, led provisionally by military chief Michael Collins, and the anti-Treaty rebels, incensed by the partition and Ireland’s status as a dominium of Britain, led by Éamon de Valera, Collins’ old commander and previously the President of the Irish Republic. Collins was killed at the age of 31 in Béal na mBláth, near where he was born, during a tour of West Cork.
The above is more of a potted history of Michael Collins than a description of the plot of the film, though it offers about as much insight into the history of the time as the film does. The film is primarily about the events and the circumstances and it will introduce novices to such things as the Black and Tans, the Twelve Apostles, the Cairo Gang, and the Bloody Sunday of 1920. But it does not go much further than that, readdressing each event from the perspective of an international audience and the rules of the three-act structure. As a result, it rushes through the events and loses sight of, as the title would suggest, its main subject. Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) is a bit of a cipher in the film, as is Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), played, for the sake of simplicity, as egotistical and unrepentantly evil. In Neil Jordan’s carefully timed and paced version of events, both characters move between a variety of registers without much sense of an inner consistency. Every decision that de Valera makes seems ridiculously stupid but it couldn’t be otherwise because the film spends no time whatsoever in trying to create a sense of what he is thinking of. Similarly, Collins is played as a fun-loving joker who will do anything that a man has to do for freedom but will be alternately ruthless and depressed about it. In Jordan’s rigid subservience to historical events, simplicity and pacing, he does both of them, and nearly every other character, a disservice.
Compared, oddly, to Braveheart, which has been named one of the most historically inaccurate films of recent times, but that nonetheless managed to convey the passions and sacrifices of a fight for national independence. Although the real events and the real life Wallace’s character are far from what the film represents, the film succeeds nonetheless as a rousing entertainment of national heroism overcoming foreign subjugation. If the facts are false, at least the emotions are not and the film represents such nationalism, as it must feel to those committed to national struggles. None of this matters as much as the fact that we never lose sight of William Wallace, the character as played by Mel Gibson. We see his inner struggles, his dark almost animalistic side, his wisdom and his refusal to deny his beliefs – and, crucially, we see how the myths that generate about Wallace are comically inaccurate. The film is simplistic, overly macho and full of falsehoods, but it is a fantastic, old-fashioned epic.
Michael Collins, meanwhile, is not. It works neither as a historical record of the events nor as a hagiographic, rousing spectacle. It ends up being a toothless beast, which fails to bring across either the character of the man (neither fictional nor real) or the significance of the events depicted. It refers to the events with an emphasis that excludes all else, but presents them so simplistically in shades of black and white that nothing of interest can be learned from them. It also refigures them to assist the sentimentalised drama and the running time. Neither does it get a sense of its characters, being both hagiographic in its attempts to make a hero out of Michael Collins and also assisting in mystifying the character more through its terribly inconsistent and unfocused characterization. Short, sporadic scenes will show a likable Collins at home and enjoying himself, but these scenes don’t add up and often feel misplaced. Elsewhere, the film shows only a man going through historical motions.
Only rarely does Jordan’s strategy make sense. We briefly get a sense of one of Jordan’s apparent trademarks, the moral complexity in his work. There are scenes that seem intended to present Collins ambiguously – leaving it up to each member of the audience to decide whether certain actions are justified or not. But these scenes are given short shrift and are only noticeable if you look for them and the rest of the film mainly contradicts them by either making it clear that Collins has no choice or guiding the argument with a simplistic representation of what is at stake. It both makes a saint of Collins and loses sight of him. The film is hence neither rousing or moving nor informative or interesting. It succeeds in being only bland.
Forgive Braveheart its falsehoods and it is a great film made in the old style – not to be taken seriously and a little hokey, but something to be swept up in and enjoyed – the kind of underdog story that Hollywood has forgotten to make since America now makes war with the underdogs. Michael Collins, meanwhile, forgiving its falsehoods, is far from emotionally engaging. Neither is it interesting in its complexity or in its storytelling. It is a grey, cold, dull film that is both contrived for the sake of entertainment and wholly lacking in entertainment.