Asst. Arts and Entertainment Editor
In the aftermath of World War I, Michael Collins, played by Liam Neeson, forms the Irish Republican Army. Having the help of his fellow revolutionaries, Harry Boland, who’s played by Aidan Quinn, and Eamon de Valera, played by Alan Rickman, they walk down a violent and bloody road to gain Irish independence from Great Britain. Collins infiltrates the Dublin police, organizes raids on British Army outposts and pioneers a revolutionary form of guerrilla warfare. However, when Collins manages to negotiate a treaty of independence from Britain, his former comrades deem him a traitor to Ireland. The country descends into civil war, and Collins must now decide where his true loyalties lie.
In the realm of period dramas, revolutionary Ireland is an overlooked subject of history, namely because it's a period steeped in controversy and violence. Indeed, the current division of Ireland into north and south has its roots in this movie's subject matter. With that said, the film does an admirable job in showcasing the life and career of these revolutionaries without resorting to glorification.
Neeson, in one of his first major roles shortly after 1993's “Schindler's List,” is an absolute powerhouse as Collins. He's charismatic, bold and energetic. In fact, one might criticize the film for portraying him in a romantic light, which is even highlighted at one point in the movie itself. Rickman's performance, incidentally, suggests that he had the energy of Severus Snape long before the first “Harry Potter” movie was made.
However, there are no punches pulled in displaying the kind of work Collins and the IRA do. In the fight for independence, the IRA acted as little more than a mafia – organizing hits, assassinating police, and raiding barracks and ammunition dumps. Today, such tactics would brand Collins and his associates terrorists (the popular view of him in the UK).
Additionally, the film is uncompromising in its portrayal of the violence on both sides of this bloody conflict. For every IRA hit on a British appointed policeman, there is a retaliatory massacre of Irish civilians by British troops. As a first-time viewer, it left me speechless and disturbed how ruthless both parties could be.
That's not to say the film is without its flaws; the romantic subplot between Collins and Kitty Kiernan, played by Julia Roberts, is one of the more uninteresting parts of the film, as Kiernan has little personality and makes little impact on the overall story. The pacing of the movie, while straightforward, is also rather hectic, not offering the audience any sort of breather or quiet moments to lessen the heavy tension.
Overall, Michael Collins is a breed of historical film that's not often seen in cinemas anymore. A star-studded cast with pulse pounding action scenes and high-stakes political drama seems in many ways like a thing of the past, but that just makes the film stand out even more despite its shortcomings. It's an ambitious movie all around, and one clearly made with passion and love for its subject. You'll be hard pressed not to find yourself rooting and crying for Neeson by the time the credits roll.
Michael Collins was released on Oct. 11, 1996 and was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Cinematography at the 69th Academy Awards.