Great unappreciated films: Breakfast on Pluto

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

A few months ago I posted something on this blog about The Company of Wolves, the classic 1984 gothic fantasy movie directed by the Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan.  I thought it was time to pen a few words in praise of a more recent and less well-known Jordan movie, 2005’s Breakfast on Pluto, which was based on a 1998 novel of the same name by Jordan’s fellow Irishman, the County Monaghan author Patrick McCabe.

 

Both film and novel recount the adventures in early 1970s Ireland and London of the transgendered and cheerfully outrageous Patrick, later ‘Kitten’ Braden (Cillian Murphy).  (In McCabe’s book she’s given the more sexually charged name of ‘Pussy’.)  These adventures are overshadowed by the Troubles that at the time were erupting bloodily in Northern Ireland and were making their presence felt in London too, thanks to pub-bombings carried out there by the IRA.

 

The movie incarnation of Breakfast on Pluto didn’t set the box office alight.  With its mix of transgender comedy, camp-ness and kitsch-ness on one hand and Irish terrorism, religious intolerance and violence on the other, it’s perhaps not hard to see why.  Indeed, after I acquired a DVD of Breakfast on Pluto in the noughties, I lent it to a conservative-minded Irish friend, who later returned it saying she enjoyed the Irish stuff but couldn’t relate to the camp stuff.  I then lent it to a gay friend, who told me he quite enjoyed the camp stuff but found the Irish stuff deeply depressing.

 

It wasn’t until I lent it to a third friend, another lady, that I found someone who enjoyed Breakfast on Pluto as much as I had.  Mind you, she confessed to feeling slightly put-out because she thought Cillian Murphy “looked better as a woman” than she did.

 

Kitten starts life as Patrick Braden, a foundling reared by an unsympathetic foster mother in a village called Tyrellin just south of the Republic of Ireland / Northern Ireland border.  Despite some behaviour that’s out-of-kilter with the local Catholic culture, like wearing make-up and asking the school priest for advice on how to get a sex change, young Patrick seems popular enough and has a gang of friends including Charlie (Ruth Negga), Irwin (Laurence Kinlan) and Lawrence (Seamus Reilly).  Then just as Patrick is reinventing himself – herself – as Kitten, the Troubles kick off.  Tyrellin experiences tragedy early on when Lawrence is killed by a car bomb.  (Poor Lawrence, who has Down’s Syndrome, is a Doctor Who fan and likes trundling around the village inside a homemade Dalek, sees the bomb-disposal robot at the car and runs towards it thinking it’s another Dalek.)

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

Meanwhile, Kitten is having a romance with Billy, the impressively sideburn-ed singer of a glam-rock band called Billy Hatchet and the Mohawks (played by Gavin Friday, real-life singer with post-punk / Goth band The Virgin Prunes).  Their romance ends when Kitten discovers that Billy is smuggling guns for the IRA.  After destroying Billy’s weapons-stash, Kitten heads for London, resolving to track down her long-lost mother.  It transpires that Mum was impregnated by Tyrellin’s randy priest, Father Liam (Liam Neeson), and disappeared off to England after giving birth.

 

In London, Kitten falls in with a fellow Irish person called John Joe (Brendan Gleason) and they work as children’s entertainers, members of a troop cavorting around Wimbledon Common dressed as the Wombles.  The job falls through when John Joe loses his temper and batters a snooty park official whilst in a Great Uncle Bulgaria costume.  Kitten then embarks on a career as a prostitute, which almost ends fatally when she’s picked up by a murderous customer (Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry giving a truly nasty performance).  From there, she becomes the assistant of a lugubrious but kindly magician called Bertie Vaughan (Stephen Rea), but things take another turn for the worse when she finds herself in a London pub one night when an IRA bomb goes off.

 

Kitten survives the carnage but, shell-shocked, is incarcerated in a London police cell by two hard-nut detectives (Ian Hart and Steven Waddington) who suspect her of planting the bomb and are ready to beat a confession out of her.  Once they realise Kitten’s innocence, however, they show her some unexpected sympathy and entrust her to the care of the female staff at a Soho peepshow.

 

Late on, Kitten’s biological parents reappear.  The repentant Father Liam visits the peepshow and is reconciled with Kitten and they end up living together back in Ireland – along with Charlie, now pregnant with Irwin’s baby.  (Irwin is no longer around, having joined the IRA, turned informer and been executed by his comrades.)  The idyll doesn’t last.  The parochial house is firebombed by Father Liam’s parishioners, outraged that he’s living with an unmarried mum and a transgendered woman.  Kitten and Charlie return to London, where Kitten finally manages to meet her mother, now happily married and with a new family.  She fails to recognise Kitten as the baby boy she left behind in Ireland and Kitten chooses not to reveal her identity.

 

Breakfast on Pluto was a second instance of Jordan adapting a Patrick McCabe novel.  Eight years earlier he’d filmed McCabe’s 1992 work The Butcher Boy, a gruelling tragi-comic horror story about a young man’s descent into madness in 1960s rural Ireland.  Both the book and film of Breakfast on Pluto are more upbeat than The Butcher Boy, though Jordan’s film version is lighter than McCabe’s literary version.  The film makes a few changes to give the story a breezier feel, for example, by making Kitten’s first lover a singer in a rock band.  In the book, he’s a crooked Irish politician in the mould of Charles Haughey.  Also, Jordan adds some enjoyably goofy references to early-1970s popular culture – I don’t recall any Wombles or Daleks in McCabe’s novel.

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé 

 

Parts of the film are hilarious, often when we see Kitten nonchalantly thumbing her nose at the macho, patriarchal, Catholic Irish culture around her: like, for instance, fantasising about playing Gaelic football in a frock, or having another fantasy about infiltrating the London HQ of the IRA where, like a cross between Diana Rigg from The Avengers and Stephanie Powers from The Girl from UNCLE, she shimmies around in a slinky outfit and overpowers the terrorists by spraying them with knock-out gas from a perfume bottle.  Meanwhile, the film manages to be inspiring too, in that no matter how rough things get for Kitten – and they get pretty rough – her cheery, romantic indefatigability carries her on.  When the happy(-ish) ending finally comes, you feel she’s earned it.

 

At times, Breakfast on Pluto resembles a package of Neil Jordan’s greatest hits.  Not only do we get an eccentric Irish village like the one in The Butcher Boy, but we see a sordid, sleazy side of London just as we did in Mona Lisa (1986).  And of course, there’s the strange combination of gender confusion and Irish terrorism that also featured in The Crying Game (1992) – the twist being that in The Crying Game Stephen Rea (Jordan’s most regular actor) didn’t realise until late on that the woman he was in love with was biologically male, whereas here, as Bertie Vaughan, he spots Kitten’s male origins immediately and isn’t bothered that he still fancies her.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but I also found Breakfast on Pluto reminiscent of the work of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, even though its subject matter is light-years removed from Forsyth’s family-friendly movies like Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983).  For one thing, as in Forsyth’s films, the (biologically) male characters such as Patrick, Irwin, Lawrence, Billy, John Joe, Bertie and Father Liam are impractical and distracted, some of them inhabiting their own little fantasy worlds.  It’s the female characters who are grounded in reality.  These include the level-headed Charlie, played by the excellent Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga; the women in the Soho peepshow who become Kitten’s guardians; and a female official whom Kitten encounters in the Central Records Office at the start of her sojourn in London – the quiet concern in the woman’s face and voice shows her awareness that Kitten is ill-equipped to survive on London’s streets.

 

Also Forsyth-esque is the fact that, apart from the psychopath played by Bryan Ferry, nobody in Breakfast on Pluto actually seems like a bad person.  The fickle Father Liam has redeemed himself by the end and even the film’s terrorists don’t appear as out-and-out villains.  While they bumble around comically, you get the impression that any threat they pose is mostly due to their incompetence.

 

To be honest, I wouldn’t say Breakfast on Pluto is a great movie.  As with most episodic films, some parts of it work better than others, and at 129 minutes long it does outstay its welcome slightly.  Kitten, you feel, could be a little quicker in catching up with her parents.  Still, if you’re open to some unconventional entertainment that combines the gloriously camp with the bleakly tragic, that gives you Wombles and IRA bomb atrocities, Breakfast on Pluto is worth checking out.

 

© Sony Classic Pictures / Pathé