Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, from a screenplay by Mr. Jordan and Patrick McCabe, based on the novel Breakfast on Pluto by Mr. McCabe, turns out to be one of many dazzling demonstrations of the cinematic art unveiled at the 43rd New York Film Festival—more than ever a valuable supplement to the quality moviegoing season.
Now in his mid-50’s, the Irish-born Mr. Jordan has combined a successful literary career (four novels and several published short stories) with a 23-year, 15-film output of strikingly uneven quality. His most interesting films have also been his most personal, and these include Mona Lisa (1986), The Miracle (1991), The Crying Game (1992), The Butcher Boy (1997) and now Breakfast on Pluto, the rollicking story of a transvestite foundling named Patrick (Cillian Murphy), born of the unholy alliance between Irish Roman Catholic priest Father Bernard (Liam Neeson) and his susceptible housekeeper, Eily Bergin (Eva Birthistle). As Patrick takes on girly ways in his early adulthood, he elongates his name to Patrick (Kitten) Braden.
Mr. Jordan has traversed this route before in the much-acclaimed The Crying Game, with Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson as two wildly unconventional lovers. The social and historical background in both films is the chaos and violence of the Irish “troubles” involving the I.R.A., the Unionists and the British through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Thanks to the pooled literary skills of Mr. Jordan and Mr. McCabe, the delights in Breakfast on Pluto are largely to be found in the creatively whimsical dialogue as well as the indomitable and indestructible charm of Mr. Murphy, he of the piercingly blue eyes, as he parades through a tumultuous world in search of his parents.
Part fable, part fantasy, part shaggy-dog story, with talking robins occasionally serving as narrators, the film exudes an intoxicating sweetness generated by Patrick’s magical affinity for attaching himself to almost everyone he encounters, however grotesque the circumstances of the introduction. The film begins with a framing episode set in London in the mid-70’s, in which Patrick—in his most fashionably “kittenish” regalia—passes a raucous band of whistling and catcalling construction workers. Without slowing the pace with which (s)he is pushing the pram, (s)he gives them a knowing smile to suggest that if they knew what (s)he had endured in life, they’d be whistling a different tune.
Cut to the fictional border town of Tyreelin, Ireland, in 1958. Only two robins are up early enough to witness a slim, blond figure deposit a baby on the doorstep of the parish presbytery and hasten away after hurriedly delivering a knock to the door. When the chattering robins see Father Bernard open the door with a fear-ridden expression, they helpfully note that he hasn’t looked the same since the pretty blond housekeeper left.
Baby Patrick is immediately placed in the foster care of Ma Braden (Ruth McCabe), a short-tempered pub owner who, nine or 10 years later, is horrified when she walks in on young Patrick wearing his stepsister’s dress and applying her lipstick. When Ma Braden rues the “cursed day I ever took you in,” Patrick realizes that he must one day find his real mother. As he is growing up, Patrick befriends a coterie of nonconformists much like himself: the girl Charlie (Bianca O’Connor), the boy Irwin (Emmet Lawlor McHugh) and their Down-syndrome-afflicted hanger-on Laurence (Seamus Reilly). In their games together, they “die for Ireland” as gun-toting I.R.A. rebels, exterminate the town’s inhabitants with Laurence dressed as a Dalek (the killer robots from the Dr. Who British TV series), and try to solve the mystery of Patrick’s parentage. Laurence’s sympathetic father Benny (Paraic Breathnach) provides Patrick with three important clues: that his mother was Eily Bergin, that she was the prettiest girl in town and resembled film star Mitzi Gaynor, and that he spotted her once on the street in London.
From that point on, the grown-up Patrick finds himself more and more dependent on the kindness of strangers as he wanders serendipitously further and further from his roots in search of his parents. All around him are the bombings and shootings that constitute the background music of a bumbling revolution. One never knows what’s coming next and where it will lead in Patrick’s far-from-focused quest for his real mother. Once when he is injured in a nightclub bombing, he is immediately suspected of being a terrorist and beaten by a policeman, who later befriends him and places him in a licensed peep-show club where he can safely find food and shelter.
Then there’s Billy Rock and the Mohawks, a terrible rock group that really bombs when Patrick is added to the troupe as a squaw singer, and a friendly, lonely, low-rent magician (Mr. Jordan’s regular, Stephen Rea) who inserts Patrick into his acts. Patrick’s world is not without bigotry, cruelty and malignant insanity. At one point, he has to fight off a serial strangler who preys on hookers by spraying perfume in his eyes. But as we know from the framing episode, Patrick always survives.
My favorite movies have always been a blend of the comic and the tragic, or even of the comic and the serious. Breakfast on Pluto succeeds on both counts. There’s an indescribable sensitivity in the delicacy of feeling that Patrick displays when he discovers for the first time that he has a half-brother (also named Patrick) by his now married and pregnant mother, whom he can never acknowledge for fear of jeopardizing her marriage. And yet he remains in the vicinity, secure in the love and support of his father and tending to the child of his steadfast childhood friend Charlie (played as an adult by Ruth Negga), who has decided against an abortion because a foundling named Patrick has shown her that sometimes this kind of “accident” can turn out well. And so it does in Breakfast on Pluto, which projects a message full of hope, though not without a steady supply of chucklesome absurdities along the way.
As an added dividend, there are many pop references besides Mitzi Gaynor, mostly in the lyrics and melodies of old songs, the essentially cheery optimism of which Patrick believes in religiously. This is a quintessentially Irish film, and I can think of no higher praise, particularly in the realm of acting and make-believe generally.
Robert Schwentke’s Flightplan, from a screenplay by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray, has been dismissed by most reviewers for its unconvincing solution to a suspense-laden mystery. I say “suspense-laden” because I came late to the movie, after all the reviews were in, and though I had no doubt that Jodie Foster’s Kyle Pratt would come out on top, I was in constant fear that the ending would make no sense at all. The rules of the game—my game, that is—prohibit me from giving away the ending unless I warn you in advance not to read any further until you’ve seen the movie for yourself. But this is a warning I prefer to use only for really good films, and besides, I’m not really sure that I understood the ending sufficiently well to give it away in any detail. Let’s just say at a minimum that Flightplan is no Red Eye, though Ms. Foster’s vehicle has done remarkably well at the box office despite its bad reviews.
Still, I didn’t mind it at all while I was watching it and, in fact, never felt that I was wasting my time. Indeed, I found some of its omnipresent morbidity particularly timely, not because of some specifically political relevance to our current situation, but rather because of a pervasive malaise that cannot be encapsulated on the op-ed page. (And actually, the movie goes out of its way to exonerate a currently targeted ethnic group from any facile suspicion.)
But if I may, I’d like to digress from the film itself to discuss a recurring refrain in discussions of the plot, both in print and in general conversation. I keep hearing and reading that we all know the plot of Flightplan: It’s the supposedly old chestnut about someone who has mysteriously vanished from some relatively enclosed space, with only one person among many noticing their absence; no one else believes the complainant and, after a while, they begin to doubt that the missing person ever existed. One gets the impression that oodles and oodles of movies have used this plot, but I can think of only four in a period of close to 70 years: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), which takes place on a train; Terence Fisher and Anthony Darnborough’s So Long at the Fair (1950), set in a Paris hotel; Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), in a London children’s school; and Flightplan, on an oversized passenger plane flying from Berlin to New York.
I am making this admittedly pedantic point because I think this particular plot is a good one, and I don’t know why it hasn’t been used more often. It caters to the inbred paranoia that makes people suspect, if they were ever to find themselves in a difficult situation and forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, that they wouldn’t be given the benefit of any doubt.
I might note that the heroines of the last two examples in this subgenre do not rely on some Prince Charming to assist them. Carol Lynley in Bunny Lake Is Missing and Jodie Foster in Flightplan achieve their goals single-handedly, through considerable spunk and sheer courage, whereas Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes needs Michael Redgrave, and Jean Simmons in So Long at the Fair needs Dirk Bogarde, to assist them. Indeed, Ms. Lynley and Ms. Foster both achieve strikingly heroic maternal images as they stride out of the scene of their ordeals alone, save for the long-missing children securely cradled in their arms. At that moment, they are simply heroically single mothers with only one objective in mind.
Greek to Me
Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow, from a screenplay by Mr. Angelopoulos, Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris and Giorgio Silvagni, is presented as the first film of a projected trilogy set against the background of 20th-century Greek history, beginning here with the flight of Greek refugees from Odessa to Thessaloniki after the final victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia. I know a little bit about this period in Greek history, because my father fought in the first Balkan War and told me many stories about his experience. Or was it his brother who fought in the Balkan War? I forget. Actually, there may have been two Balkan Wars; Greek history from 1821 onward is all about regional wars and internal discords.
The Weeping Meadow follows its characters at a great distance in a series of lengthy lateral camera movements that track them through Fascist dictatorships, the war against the Italians in Albania, World War II, the German occupation, the British liberation and the civil war that followed, all the way to 1952. It is clear from scattered comments here and there that Mr. Angelopoulos is an artist of the left, as are most filmmakers around the world who get their major recognition from international film festivals and all the cinematic intelligentsia who assemble there. In these circles, at least, Mr. Angelopoulos is regarded as Greece’s greatest filmmaker.
In this context, I hate to strike a sour note in the symphony of praise that has resounded around the world over his efforts. But I must confess that I haven’t liked an Angelopoulos film since his second feature, Days of 36 (1972), a farcically satirical jab at the Metaxas dictatorship, which ruled Greece through the 30’s and early 40’s, until the Germans overran the country—fatally delaying their invasion of Russia, my father always insisted. As it happens, I was brought up by parents who were Monarchists in Greece and rock-ribbed Republicans in America. Indeed, my stand-up comedy line at political gatherings is that we were the only relief family in Brooklyn to vote for Alf Landon in 1936.
But my differences with Mr. Ange-lopoulos are not political but aesthetic. According to Angelopoulos admirer David Thomson in his invaluable The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the Greek director declared that his strongest influences were Murnau, Mizoguchi and Welles. Certainly, his exclusive reliance on camera movement seems to place him in the anti-montage category so favored by the late André Bazin; still, I much prefer the camera movements of Max Ophüls and Kenji Mizo-guchi over those of Angelopoulos and Stanley Kubrick. With Ophüls and Mizo-guchi, the camera follows the characters, whereas with Angelopoulos and Kubrick, the characters follow the camera.
His triumphs, if any, lie in the realms of pictorialism (landscapes and seascapes) and epical ambition, but not in dramatic narrative or emotional projection. In The Weeping Meadow, he stays so far away from his characters that there’s hardly any trace of physical sensuality. Also, his films are so relentlessly slow that he makes the much-criticized Antonioni and Dreyer seem like speed demons by comparison. And to think that I once coined the expression “Antoniennui” in what I now regard as an ill-considered jest.
But don’t take my word for it; if you’re at all serious about cinema, you must see The Weeping Meadow for yourself. Who knows? I’ve been wrong before. It’s not that I doubt Mr. Angelopoulos’ sincerity and conviction. His life has been poured into his art—but I simply haven’t been moved by the effort.