When this movie came out, more than 20 years ago, it was long before I was in Irish anorak mode. In fact, at the time, I wasn’t even in movie-going mode. It wasn’t until a few years after I’d written Irish Firebrands that I became aware of this film, which is probably just as well, because during my cultural immersion research, what I learned about Michael Collins was based on reasonably well-established historical facts.
Facts are what must underpin historical fiction, which this motion picture fundamentally is, and like all fiction, this story has to find in speculation the fuel to keep moving its plot forward (even if, as in the WWII film Valkyrie, we all go into watching it knowing in advance what’s going to happen at the end). This speculative stuff consists of what could have plausibly happened “off-stage” in people’s lives, and is based on what can be extrapolated from their public behavior and utterances.
I can deal with extrapolations. It’s interpolations that irk me. And Neil Jordan’s decision to revise the facts of the Croke Park Massacre involves a departure from reality that was just big enough to destroy my suspension of disbelief. His justification for that decision (as elucidated in the accompanying documentary-interview video) was that the true circumstances would have been more horrifying for audiences than his fictionalization, but that doesn’t wash, with me. The fact that the armored car in reality did not enter the stadium during the attack impairs Jordan’s credibility. That’s a shame, because I’ve enjoyed reading his other fiction, and I own a few of his novels.
All that aside, this portrayal of a short segment of Michael Collins’s short life does make a riveting adventure film. It’s very fast paced, although that becomes something of a problem when so much of the action takes place enveloped in smoke and dust, half-light, or darkness, conditions which make it difficult for the viewer to follow details. Julia Roberts’s Kitty Kiernan is lackluster enough to be a nonentity, but Liam Neeson portrays a plausible Collins, and Alan Rickman’s own physical resemblance to Eamon DeValera is uncomfortably spooky. The documentary is informative, including much period footage, although there really isn’t anything Tim Pat Coogan can say that can dissuade my personal conviction that The Long Fella personally had much more to do with The Big Fella’s demise (which occurred 96 years ago today).