A Glam Look at the Troubles

With a dash of Chanel No. 5

BREAKFAST ON PLUTO: Directed by Neil Jordan. Produced by Alan Moloney, Neil Jordan, Stephen Woolley. Written by Neil Jordan, Patrick McCabe, based on McCabe’s novel. Cinematography, Declan Quinn. Editor, Tony Lawson. Production design, Tom Conroy. Costume design, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh. Starring Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Ruth Negga, with Laurence Kinlan, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, Gavin Friday, Eva Birthistle, Bryan Ferry, Steve Waddington and Ian Hart. Pathé Pictures. Sony Pictures Classics, 2005. R. 129 minutes.

Neil Jordan’s latest film is unlike any of his others, although it does have in common with them an awareness of the political and social issues of its time. As in his outstanding 1996 Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson, the issues are the Irish troubles. In the 1960s and ’70s, bombings, riots, repression and sectarian violence erupted between the Irish Republican Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the British Army and loyalist paramilitaries. And as in his 1992 blockbuster, The Crying Game, Jordan shows how the Northern Ireland conflict invades the lives of even apolitical characters, in this instance a lad also considered a social misfit, a transvestite.

As a boy, Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy) prefers to cross-dress. At age 9 or so, Patrick learns the woman who’s raised him is not his mother. He was a foundling dropped off at the church next to the morning milk by a mysterious blonde-haired woman. Living on the border with Northern Ireland, Patrick plays gun-toting IRA fighters with his chums. In school Patrick writes a funny, naughty fantasy, which he sees as a musical movie. In his movie, the local priest, Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), ravishes the local girl (Eva Birthistle) who cleans house for him.

Writing liberates Patrick’s femme persona, Kitten, who takes in the local dance club with his mates Charlie (Ruth Negga) and her boyfriend Irwin (Laurence Kinlan). One magical night they and their pal with Downs syndrome hitch a ride with some bikers on acid who take them to the countryside and fill their minds with tales of mystical druids and astral highways. Soon Patrick leaves home to find the mother who abandoned him.

Getting a ride in their van leads to Kitten’s brief onstage stint with Billy Rock and the Mohawks. With glam-rock makeup and outlandish dress the band produces an unforgettable version of a really bad song from the era, “Running Bear,” sung by lead singer Billy Hatchett. Billy, played by former punk star Gavin Friday, develops a big crush on Kitten. Unfortunately for Kitten, this romance also leads to a confrontation with “serious, serious” IRA thugs. On a visit to Charlie and Irwin he finds Irwin’s interest in the IRA growing. After street violence turns tragic, Patrick leaves for London, hoping to find his mother.

Lives that cross Kitten’s include John-Joe (Bendan Gleeson), who wears a costume and prances around at a kiddie theme park; Mr. Silky String (Bryan Ferry) whose intentions are murderous; Bertie (Stephen Rea), a magician who hires him as an assistant; and a London cop (Ian Hart). Bedeviling his life is the senseless violence of the times. Through it all, Patrick retains an innocence and playfulness that saves him more than once and also earns the respect of those who care about him. A strange and wonderful mix, Breakfast on Pluto is the kind of film you simply have to trust.

If you’ve read The Butcher Boy, also a novel by Patrick McCabe, or seen Jordan and McCabe’s film version, you know you can trust the experience to be fanciful and humorous yet terribly real.

In Butcher Boy, 12-year old Francie (Eammon Owens) hides in his imagination to escape terrible fights between his parents. He leads “an active fantasy life fueled by television, cowboy movies, comic book heroes and the pervasive fears of nuclear war exacerbated by the Cuban missile crisis.” Later in the review (EW 7/23/98) I wrote, “I don’t think there’s ever been a film like this — that looks this deeply into the mind of a child sliding over into madness while remaining ironically humorous almost to the end.”

Breakfast On Pluto makes two. Unlike the younger, less secure and more vulnerable Francie, Patrick keeps himself whole even as he invests in his identity as Kitten. Patrick’s relationship with Charlie as well as another important figure from his past give him a precious stability. This collaboration between Jordan and McCabe looks into the inner imaginative life of a boy who doesn’t fit into the given social structure. The happier ending is earned.

Now playing at the Bijou, this is a don’t-miss 2005 movie, one of the best. Highest recommendations.