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Megan Clark | Where’s the Craic?

Michael Collins

Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 00:10

Starring Liam Neeson in the title role, “Michael Collins” (1996) traces historical events spanning from the 1916 Irish rebellion against the British — known as the Easter Rebellion — to the Irish Civil War fought between the “Freestaters” and the “Republicans.” The former supported the establishment of an Irish Free State and accepted Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the United Kingdom, and the latter advocated for a united Irish republic free of British rule. The film also tracks the rise of Michael Collins, the mastermind behind the first successful guerilla war waged against the British in Ireland and the man responsible for shaping the Irish Republican Army, otherwise known as the IRA. Collins also helped negotiate a peace with Britain, resulting in the creation of the Irish Free State under British dominion and the partition of Ireland between the Republic and Northern Ireland. As the unofficial founder of the IRA and a key negotiator of an unsatisfactory compromise with the British, the historical Michael Collins has a complicated legacy.

The film “Michael Collins” is similarly complex and compelling. It was produced in both Ireland and America, with the majority of the budget coming from Warner Bros. and the remainder supplied by the Irish Film Board. Consequently, the film combines narrative elements of Hollywood with an ethos of Irish nationalism.

Liam Neeson gives a tremendous performance, infusing his character with an air of transformation and consistency. He masterfully portrays Collins’ transition from a humorous but pragmatic leader to a broken man whose dreams have been crushed by the conflict over British dominion and the partitioning of Ireland. He complicates this transition by revealing hints of sadness early in the movie and retaining a somewhat jocular tone even at the film’s depressing conclusion. During an early scene, Collins laments his tactical leadership of the IRA and confronts his hatred for the British and himself. Throughout the scene, Neeson keeps his tall frame motionless and tired but moves his head with his speech, simultaneously conveying Collins’ desperation and energy.

The supporting cast, led by Aidan Quinn, Alan Rickman and Julia Roberts, is also full of excellent performances. Rickman in particular lends both gravity and humor to the plot. He plays Eamon de Valera, a serious and — in the film’s portrayal — conniving leader in Irish politics. While Rickman’s character continuously challenges Collins, he also provides comic relief when he is broken out of jail disguised as a woman, a scene Rickman plays with dry wit. Aidan Quinn and Julia Roberts play Collins’ best friend and love interest, respectively. They also turn in good enough performances to be nuanced, stand−alone characters, although Quinn’s acting far exceeds that of Roberts.

The blending of humor and drama, in addition to displaying an awareness of national history, give this film a quintessentially Irish feel. The movie also uses traditional Hollywood elements to strengthen the audience’s connection to the characters. For example, the exploration of the friendship between Michael Collins and Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) makes this movie enjoyable for those who appreciate character studies but do not necessarily have an interest in Irish history. However, the Hollywood−ization of this movie has also made it historically misleading. It inflates Collins’ role in the Anglo−Irish conflict to the point where it eclipses other important figures. It also simplifies the conflict between the Republicans and Freestaters by leading audiences to view the Irish Civil War as a fight over Northern Ireland when other factors actually held more importance.

Next week, I will review “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006) which presents a more nuanced — but biased — exploration of the Irish Civil War.

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Megan Clark is a junior majoring in history.  She can be reached at Megan.Clark@tufts.edu.

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