Directed by Neil Jordan. Starring Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Julia Roberts, Alan Rickman. (1996, R, 138 min.)
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Oct. 25, 1996
Neil Jordan's (Interview with the Vampire, The Crying Game) latest feature Michael Collins overflows with historical significance. Not only is it one of the few films to tackle the complex tale of Irish Republican Army leader Michael Collins, but it also stands as the one film that Liam Neeson and Jordan, among others, have been trying to make for at least the last 10 years. Although somewhat heavy-handed and ponderous in spots, Michael Collins contains some fine performances and a number of compelling sequences in which Collins and his Irish Volunteers (as the IRA was first known before a factious split in 1921) stake their lives on liberating Ireland from the British Empire in the early 1900s. Jordan's film begins in 1916 with the Easter Uprising in Dublin, a violent incident that introduces us to Collins (Neeson), his best friend and fellow revolutionary Harry Boland (Quinn), and Eamon De Valera (Rickman), a United States citizen who would later become the head of the Volunteers. Collins and Boland are imprisoned for their part in the Uprising, and upon their release they find themselves leading the fight to free Ireland from British rule. Michael Collins traces, with some creative license by Jordan, the rise and fall of Collins and those men who worked with him, particularly Boland and De Valera, who would later turn against Collins in 1922 when he negotiated with the British Crown for the right to establish the Irish Free State. At times incredibly violent, Michael Collins nonetheless portrays this violence with little glamour in an attempt to show the searing passion, commitment, and, for some, problematic sacrifice of the Irish revolutionaries led by the charismatic Collins. So charismatic is Collins, in fact, that he woos Kitty Kiernan (Roberts) away from Boland, an act that Jordan's script suggests added to Boland's discontent with Collins. Neeson's performance as the legendary Irishman reminds us of how large a presence the actor is: He fills up the frame with his voice, his hands, and his gestures. As Boland, Quinn's quieter determination works as a perfect foil for Neeson's stature. Also notable is Stephen Rea as double agent Ned Broy, an amalgam of three men who were Collins' associates in real life. Roberts gives an adequate performance as Kitty Kiernan. However, her role -- intended by Jordan to “humanize” Collins and Boland and their friendship (a move that seems unnecessary with these capable actors) -- is so limited that it tends to slow down the action of the film. A draw for history buffs and Neeson fans alike, Michael Collins marks Jordan's entrance into epic filmmaking with some problematic moments amidst a generally strong narrative.