11 January 2006
By Ian Grey
Neil Jordan’s latest follows the wonderful misadventures of one Irish woman in calamitous 1970s London
No matter what you hear, Neil Jordan’s wonderful new movie isn’t about a 1970s glitter rock-era transsexual’s coming to terms with who he/she is. Rather, it’s about how that transsexual, one Patrick "Kitten" Braden (Cillian Murphy), copes with a world not at all happy that he knows full well, from boyhood to adult girlhood, exactly who she is.
And however much Jordan protests too much in the press, Breakfast on Pluto is very much connected to his very similar, but maddeningly flawed The Crying Game and its Irish Troubles history companion, Michael Collins, while paying more serious mind to the ambisexual concerns of his very silly Interview With the Vampire. In short, the director has finally found material—Patrick McCabe’s 1998 novel, which Jordan adapted—that unifies his obsessions with politics, the Troubles, and the dangerous fragility of machismo.
A swooping-camera fanfare introduces a pair of thickly accented, subtitled, talking CG birds who set the scene. That’s right—talking birds. Anyway, it’s the 1960s, a small Irish village, and foster child Patrick is already taking to wearing his disapproving mum’s frocks, idolizing glamour queen Mitzi Gaynor, paling around with a black girl named Charlie (Ruth Negga) and a lad with Down syndrome (Seamus Reilly), and finding his only real adult support from kindly Father Bernard (Liam Neeson).
Once he becomes a lithe, becurled glam-drag teen, Patrick/Kitten moves to London to 1) avoid getting pummeled by local unfriendlies, 2) search for his biological mother, and 3) find true love.
Life doesn’t cut Kitten a break. Desperate for cash, she starts turning tricks, and is almost killed by a psychotic gay hater (played, with winking irony, by Bryan Ferry). Politics hound her, whether via her first boyfriend (played with smoldering intensity by ex-Virgin Prunes singer Gavin Friday), the lead singer for a hilarious glitter-cowboy band who turns out to also be running guns for the IRA, or a deliriously fun night out at a club that turns into a nightmare courtesy an IRA bombing. (The latter’s abrupt, intimate randomness makes it the most viscerally matter-of-fact vision of terrorism yet committed to film.) What follows is a seamless mesh of loss, camp, hard-boiled epiphany, and earned delights.
More than any movie in memory, Jordan uses source music to underscore his scenario and as a brilliant substitute for McCabe’s exclamation point-heavy prose. He understands the way a critically indefensible tune becomes something transcendental simply by how one hears it. And so, Bobby Goldsboro’s saccharine "Honey" becomes Kitten’s theme song, while Harry Nilsson’s nearly forgotten "You’re Breaking My Heart" ("you’re tearin’ it apart, so fuck you!") becomes a daft revolutionary fist-pumper.
Jordan really gets the mission statement of ’70s glitter rock—the reinvention of self via rock raw power and camp theatrics—represented here by choice cuts from the Glitter Band, Slade, and T. Rex. Meanwhile, the director is so confident in his material that he hilariously indulges in metatextual larks not present in McCabe’s, um, text. A personal favorite is a hilarious scene done in the style of 1960s spy semi-spoofs such as Danger: Diabolik in which Kitten—dressed, of course, in a black vinyl cat suit—destroys a terrorist cell by spraying its members viciously with "a bottle of Chanel’s favorite number."
And Cillian Murphy? After out-Lorre-ing Peter with his squirm-inducing turn as the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, he magnificently re-purposes his weirdly delicate beauty to create a Kitten who may sometimes purr but otherwise avoids all the traps of drag approximation. When in the grips of her latest dilemmas Kitten hisses, "Serious, serious, serious," Murphy makes it sound like a valid unified field theory for every problem on Earth. You don’t just accept his soiled innocence; you root for her.
Through all her Candide-like indignities—worst is a horrifically violent British police interrogation—we get the sweet sound of Neil Jordan’s most romantic conceit: that the unassailable integrity of Kitten’s true self, clung to from childhood on, cannot help but enhance the humanity of everyone she meets. Even the most thuggishly violent cop ends up a new, better man after realizing the incredible courage it takes to be a girl like Kitten.