Neil Jordan's historical biopic of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, the man who led a guerrilla war against the UK, helped negotiate the creation of the Irish Free State, and led the National Army during the Irish Civil War.
In the 1970s, a young trans woman, Patrick "Kitten" Braden, comes of age by leaving her Irish town for London, in part to look for her mother and in part because her gender identity is beyond the town's understanding.
During the Depression, Jimmy Gralton returns home to Ireland after ten years of exile in America. Seeing the levels of poverty and oppression, the activist in him reawakens and he looks to re-open the dance hall that led to his deportation.
In 1920, rural Ireland is the vicious battlefield of republican rebels against the British security forces and Irish Unionist population who oppose them, a recipe for mutual cruelty. Medical graduate Damien O'Donovan always gave priority to his socialist ideals and simply helping people in need. Just when he's leaving Ireland to work in a highly reputed London hospital, witnessing gross abuse of commoners changes his mind. he returns and joins the local IRA brigade, commanded by his brother Teddy, and adopts the merciless logic of civil war, while Teddy mellows by experiencing first-hand endless suffering. When IRA leaders negotiate an autonomous Free State under the British crown, Teddy defends the pragmatic best possible deal at this stage. Damien however joins the large seceding faction which holds nothing less than a socialist republic will do. The result is another civil war, bloodily opposing former Irish comrades in arms, even the brothers.Written by
Solid but damaged by the slant towards the Republican point of view
The English occupy Ireland with a brutal and harsh hand but Damien intends to pursue his medical career. However when a young friend is beaten to death for no reason, Damien decides to join up with the armed resistance to try and force the British out of Ireland. Somehow finding the stomach for the acts he commits, Damien follows his brother Teddy in the field, fighting side by side with one common aim. However, as some form of progress is made, the brothers (and the movement) find themselves splitting onto different, conflicting roads.
Let me deal with the big complaint first that this is a pro-IRA, pro-terrorist film. Those making this argument in a strong way tend to be like myself and be from a Protestant background or at least have more knowledge of that side of the argument Conversely, those that claim that it is just a fair piece of history with no bias would tend to be the reverse. The truth is somewhere in the middle because, while the film is not supporting or totally justifying the IRA and terrorism, it does certainly excuse their actions to a point. Those who cannot see this are perhaps a bit too close or a bit too remote from the material imagine the same film with Iraqi insurgents replacing the Irish and the USA replacing the British and you'll perhaps understand more why it is a touchy subject.
By having all the British be brutal but yet showing Damien killing because it is somehow the right thing to do, Loach cannot be surprised by such accusations? However this is not to say that the film is all that biased, because it does generally show the civil war as just as bad and just as pointlessly bloody; it is just a shame that it doesn't judge one side as harshly as it does the other so when the Irish start killing their own, it is shown as something they hate, as opposed to all the British who actively enjoy doing it. It does still seem to condemn the violence of the land, but I must admit hoping for more from Loach perhaps not a totally even hand because that is not what history tells us this was, but perhaps more depth that doesn't appear to put everything at the feet of the British. One could also question the aim of Loach in making this film late last year, at a time when the Northern Ireland peace process was still on the edge of disaster (although in fairness, anytime in the last decade one could say the same).
As director, Loach doesn't quite manage to produce the natural tone that is his style when he is on his game. However the performances are still pretty solid even if the characters do tend to be slanted towards being sympathetic. Murphy is perhaps the most guilty of this and this was a problem even though his cool presence is welcome here. Delaney works better as his brother, mainly because the material doesn't give him as easy a ride. The support cast are mostly solid enough although I do have a confession to make here and now. Despite being from Northern Ireland, I did have to put the subtitles on while watching it not for every line but for sufficient difficult accents to make it worth doing. Given that I should have had more of a chance that, say, American viewers, this is probably worth baring in mind for the casual viewer.
Overall then this is a solid enough historical piece that does a so-so job of showing the violence and pointless bloodshed of the period and place. Although it is not a glory piece for the IRA, it does slant rather towards the Republicans as "the good guys", which was disappointing from Loach not because I think the British are the good guys (they are not) but because anyone who knows the situation knows that one side is as bad as the other and it would have been nice for Loach to scale down the slightly romanticised view of his freedom fighters here.
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