Neil Jordan’s new film, Breakfast on Pluto, invites a variety of comparisons to his most famous film, 1992’s The Crying Game: Both feature characters who were born male but live as women; both play out amidst the Irish “troubles,” of which their transgender characters, apolitical and essentially frivolous, are but dimly aware; both take their titles from 1960s British pop hits that help to define these characters’ worlds. Both films also explore the ways in which commitment to a cause can separate a person from his essential humanity, and how innocent bystanders become the victims of others’ struggles. But the differences are as great as the similarities, beginning with the tones of the two films. The Crying Game starts off grimly realistic and moves into a more stylized mode, tinged with noir; Breakfast on Pluto opens with magic realism — including Disneyesque touches like bickering, Oscar Wilde-quoting robins whose chirps are subtitled, a bit of whimsy that shouldn’t work but does — then shifts gradually but drastically through a harsher, bleaker realism and back round the other side. Shot with a muted palette and a grainy look that domesticates and familiarizes the fantastic elements rather than making them ridiculous, the opening scenes have the same kind of energy as the early sequences in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, another film about the mutability of gender roles and the potency of cheap music. Rare among filmmakers who come from the literary rather than the visual arts (he was a novelist before becoming involved in film and continues to publish), Jordan is an extravagantly visual director. Here he’s working for the first time with veteran cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, Vanity Fair), and together they arrange lovely, thoughtful compositions that evoke the work of painters from Whistler to Magritte.
The film is based on Irish author Patrick McCabe’s 1998 novel of the same name, a picaresque tale about the misadventures of Patrick “Pussy” Braden — the nickname is here softened to “Kitten” — a boy born in a village near the border with Northern Ireland, the product of a brief encounter between a middle-aged priest (played by Liam Neeson) and a young housemaid (Eva Birthistle) who looks “just like Mitzi Gaynor.” As a baby, Patrick is taken in by Ma “Whiskers” Braden, a large, hairy, frequently soused local woman whose home teems with other people’s unwanted children. While still in his teens, Patrick, whose flagrant effeminacy and frank sexuality are a problem at school (where the author appears briefly as Patrick’s teacher) and unwelcome in the small, conservative village, leaves home, eventually winding up in London, plying his trade in Piccadilly Circus and hoping to someday find that elusive Mitzi Gaynor look-alike. The novel is told entirely from Patrick’s point of view, in a series of short, anecdotal chapters, with his elaborate fantasies inextricable from the often harsh realities of his life. Though the film’s script — written by Jordan — adds its own narrative structure and recasts many events in Patrick’s life, it retains the book’s episodic nature, with each sequence introduced by a title and chapter number. The structure Jordan introduces is more neatly symmetrical than McCabe’s rather shapeless novel, and it builds to a more satisfying conclusion. Jordan previously adapted McCabe’s bleak novel The Butcher Boy (more or less faithfully, I’ve read, though I haven’t seen the film), but here he evinces a more upbeat worldview — like his earlier films, Breakfast on Pluto is full of misfortune and violence but ultimately maintains a kind of temperate optimism, a willingness to acknowledge the world’s horrors without succumbing to melancholy.
Another important difference between this film and The Crying Game comes out in the central performances. What Cillian Murphy does here is quantitatively different than what was asked of Jaye Davidson — Davidson was an unknown who basically stumbled upon his role, and his main task was to be a convincing woman until the big reveal (though viewers familiar with the transgendered could spot the telltale signs right off). Murphy, on the other hand, is known to us — since his breakout role in 28 Days Later…, he’s been popping up everywhere, as a potential suitor to Scarlett Johannson in Girl with a Pearl Earring, as a villain in Batman Begins and Red Eye, etc. What he has to do is overcome the idea (or ideas) of him that we already have, to convince us that deep inside beats the heart of woman, and he does just that — he seems to become not just a transvestite or a drag queen but an honest-to-God woman. Murphy persuades the audience in the same way Patrick does those he meets — Patrick believes so fully in his own womanhood and shows it so gracefully, so effortlessly, that after a while one doesn’t think to question it. Patrick seems blithely unconcerned about how he’s seen; he doesn’t to try to fake anyone out — we never see him wearing falsies or wigs. He doesn’t need them; he feels like a complete woman just as he is. His face is somewhat like a more sensual Gwyneth Paltrow, or maybe a skinny, angular Karen Black. Early on, he dresses like a lost member of the New York Dolls in flared pants and skintight polyester shirts, but later, when he dresses more formally, he has a chic, almost Faye Dunaway vibe.
Patrick comes across as a real woman, but a particular kind of woman, one of an earlier time; Murphy is singing selections from the Vivien Leigh songbook, playing Patrick as part Blanche Dubois, part Scarlett O’Hara. (Is it my imagination, or does he actually say “fiddle-dee-dee” at one point?) He’s the same kind of delicate, mildly delusional man-woman that Davidson’s Dil was. In a 1994 interview, the critic Pauline Kael said, “As for The Crying Game, watching it I kept thinking, If the hero’s lover had been a clinging-vine woman who built altars to her men, she would have been considered a sick chick, and the hero advised to get away fast.” Breakfast on Pluto has some of that same condescending, subtly misogynistic acceptance of weakness, as though by abdicating male prerogatives Patrick is also surrendering to emotional instability. Jordan is sympathetic to Patrick, and he should get credit for subtly elevating his dignity, as the weakness comes through even more strongly in the novel, but it’s still limiting and demeaning — anyone who knows male-to-female transsexuals or drag queens knows that they’re usually pretty goddamn strong, toughened by their experiences rather than made more vulnerable.
Murphy’s transformation is still remarkable regardless of its larger implications, but Jordan’s approach to the material unintentionally undercuts it. Throughout the film, his attitude is very evenhanded, which is an ideal approach to dealing with the Irish conflict, allowing the audience to appreciate that, while there are valid points all sides, in service to its own ideology each side is often blind or indifferent to the outcomes of its actions, the innocent people maimed and killed, the families divided. But the distance that Jordan maintains, his refusal to adopt a position on anything, extends also to the individual characters. Watching Murphy as Patrick, I kept wanting to connect with the character emotionally, to feel as though I had something at stake, but he remains distant, elusive, as he does in McCabe’s book. He’s built too many protective layers of irony around himself, and Jordan doesn’t provide a means for us to find a way in. And his relationships with others are often unclear or under-realized — his early affair with a musician named Billy Hatchet (Gavin Friday) is too sketchy and opaque for us to see how deeply either feels about the other, and Stephen Rea, as another of Patrick’s lovers, is more animated than usual, but it’s impossible to say how much his relationship with Patrick is based on affection and how much on exploitation. Patrick’s friendship with Charlie (Ruth Negga), a childhood playmate who later becomes a central part of his life, seems casual, almost inconsequential until a scene in which they’re frantically hugging and proclaiming the depth of their love.
One of the few means we have of understanding Patrick is through the film’s score; there’s almost no new music here, but the use of hits from the film’s period and just before does more than just the usual work of establishing the setting. The pop standards and glam rock that Patrick loves are literally the soundtrack of his life; they’re the songs that express what he feels, how he sees the world, and how he dreams it might be. Sweet’s “Wig Wam Bam” might not mean much to anyone else in the world, but when Billy performs it while Patrick watches, on his first adventure outside his squalid, depressing village, it’s an orgiastic experience. Most of the film’s songs aren’t great; they’re just disposable hits, many long-forgotten, a few perennials on classic-rock playlists. They’re kitsch, but Patrick believes in kitsch; it has meaning for him; it expresses his feelings for him more eloquently than he can. McCabe once said, “You could make the case that all art aspires to be music,” and Jordan, by allowing this music its due, admitting the significance even stupid, banal music can have for Patrick and for any of us, transforms kitsch into art.
It’s possible to see Patrick and his struggles as a metaphor for Ireland itself, for its search for identity, for wholeness, and for the citizenry trying to go on about their lives while bombs explode around them, a people driven half-mad by the volatile, irrational world. The film implies that when your reality is downright psychotic, fantasy may be the only way of keeping yourself sane — not even terrorism is more vivid to Patrick than his fantasy life, and who could blame him? Patrick is an innocent, a holy fool who floats passively through life, less the actor than the acted-upon, surrounded by people who are extravagantly aggressive, so lost in his fantasy world that he doesn’t plan or have ambitions. Jordan’s film ends with an entirely different, much more upbeat interpretation of the passages that conclude McCabe’s book, which was completed just as British and Irish officials were signing the Belfast Agreement, a major step forward in the Northern Ireland peace process. He closes with a set of sequences that parallel events at the beginning of the film and set right what once was wrong. When the priest comes to speak with Patrick in a peepshow booth where he’s performing, it’s a brilliant, parodic reversal of their earlier confrontation in the confessional, and there’s a pleasing symmetry when Patrick returns to the rectory and assumes the role that once, briefly, had been his mother’s. Jordan argues that reconciliation is possible, that one can find wholeness and fulfillment. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Breakfast on Pluto / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()