“If I wasn’t a transvestite terrorist, would you marry me?”
I’ve neglected both (extensive) writing about movies and, generally–or, perhaps, specifically, in that I primarily mean my extensive DVD collection–watching them. This was my move to break that. Once upon a time, I kept a maximum number of movies unsealed out of the huge backlog (it’s over 1,000, quite literally) and it was from the last time I opened any (something like four years ago!) that I selected this title.¹ I’d picked it up initially thanks to a number of factors: 1) it was distributed (I believe–they do go all the way down to production) by Sony Pictures Classics, who I’ve found to be reliably good, 2) it stars Cillian Murphy, who has held my attention since I saw 28 Days Later at a midnight showing in a theater a few weeks after release, and 3) I heard good things.
Patrick Braden is abandoned as an infant by his mother, at the doorstep of an Irish priest (Liam Neeson) in smalltown Ireland, who almost immediately passes him along to a parishioner, “Ma” Braden (Ruth McCabe), who proceeds to raise him from his youth (played by Conor McEvoy) to adolescence (then and after Murphy). As a child, Patrick is told of his mother by his friend Lawrence’s (Seamus Reilly) father, that she looked much like Mitzi Gaynor, which informs his chosen personal aesthetic from then onward for many years. Now calling herself Kitten and rejecting the name Patrick (though eventually she turns it to Patricia), her persistent conflicts with the Catholic school he attends–a rather explicit story/essay (assigned by the author of the original book, in a cameo, as it happens!), a semi-tongue-in-cheek question in the “anonymous puberty questions” submissions, and flaunting of his shifting gender identity to the staff–leave him to finally walk out on the fuming elder Braden, in search of his mother in London, and somewhere he belongs. Her friends Charlie (Ruth Negga) and Irwin (Laurence Kinlan) are left behind, and the lot of them find themselves varyingly entangled in the Troubles, glam rock (Gavin Friday’s “Billy Hatchett” is a sure treat), and, particularly for Kitten, a mess of bad luck as the world winds around Kitten, to her great chagrin, with seriousness entirely out of her league.
Neil Jordan is probably most famous for one movie: The Crying Game, which, as it happens, I’ve never seen. He was also responsible for Liam Neeson’s turn as Michael Collins (in a movie of the same name) and the first Anne Rice adaptation, Interview with the Vampire. All that said, my strongest impression came from an entirely other movie–The Company of Wolves. It’s certainly easy to draw lines to The Crying Game, in one respect that will be obvious to anyone familiar with it, but it’s fascinating that Breakfast on Pluto, being as tonally peculiar as it is, ended up making me think (rather weirdly, it must be said) of the film I knew best. Now, it was tentative at best–but when an early moment in the movie has a discussion between two robins about Father Liam (yes, the character, too), I knew I was in for something odd (which The Company of Wolves is, quite unquestionably).
Cillian firmly inhabits the role of “Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden” (as she’s wont to introduce herself), from the rebellious, outstretch tongue of defiance that is her youth, through the less-thoroughly masked young adulthood that follows it. People respond to her in varying ways–the philosophical “Border Knights” biker gang (led by Liam Cunningham in an un-named role) don’t seem to be fussed about Kitten or Lawrence, who were held out as the reason for barred entry to a dance; magician Bertie Vaughn (Stephen Rea) is enamoured of Kitten, but nto smitten; Hatchett is smitten; a variety of strangers is pitying, repulsed, attracted, all with varying degrees of awareness regarding Kitten’s transgender identity.
That performance (which avoids mockery, cheap shots, or the opposite cheapness of saccharine pandering) is not the entirety of the movie, though. Jordan’s direction is strong, with a script that moves the plot (severely altered, it seems, from the original novel) at a quick pace through episodes, devoting to them only the necessary time for both their plot and emotional beats, whether it’s a few moments or a few minutes. The stranger elements (like those robins) never comes off as misplaced or jarringly odd, just quirky in an unintrusive fashion that serves more to appear as an extension of Kitten’s fantasy-based method of dealing with the sense of abandonment that drives most of her life, primarily appearing in the weirdness of episodes (a glam rock band, the Wombles, strange and mildly surreal experiences with the IRA intruding in London, and so on) and the bright palettes of colours–inevitable though they may be in light of Kitten’s fashion sense.
As with most Sony Pictures Classics titles, I found myself thoroughly pleased with the end result, which didn’t stumble on any expected notes you might think to find in an art-house type movie–be it uncomfortably banal or cliché heartstring-pulls or unnecessarily off-the-wall compositions or moments designed only to emphasize uniqueness. Its quirks and flaws are honest, sincere, and clear–only appropriate in a story about a character who can be described in much the same way.
Oh, and lest I be a total fool: there’s an excellent soundtrack here, the highlights being some semi-odd Harry Nilsson choices. “The Moonbeam Song” was one thing, but “Me and My Arrow”, and especially “You’re Breaking My Heart” were inspired and well-placed, as were many more famous tracks from the likes of (appropriately) Van Morrison, Buffalo Springfield (guess which!), even Slade, and Billy Paul’s famous hit.
¹For a time, I’d set this one aside, due to it having been “tagged” with subject matter I am…not comfortable with. Should the word “trigger” mean anything to you, it would not hurt to have it in mind for its most common usage (which is, to my knowledge, sexual violence) with this particular movie.