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 

 

Chances with wolves: film review / The Grey

 

In an effort to add some cultural variety to this blog, I’ve decided to publish the occasional film and book review on it.  Here’s the first of these.

 

 

It’s said that the tastiest meals are the ones cobbled together from yesterday’s leftovers.  Released earlier this year, The Grey – starring Liam Neeson, directed by Joe Carnahan and produced by (amongst others) the blockbuster-movie-making Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley – has ingredients that have obviously been lifted from several old thriller and horror dishes in the cinematic refrigerator.  But it manages to be a filling and nourishing dish in itself, even if the taste it leaves in the mouth is far from sweet.

 

Neeson plays Ottway, a marksman who works for an oil company in the Alaskan north, protecting oil workers from natural predators while they toil amid the snow.  Finishing a work-shift, Ottway joins a planeload of off-duty workers flying to Anchorage.  However, en route, the plane crashes in the middle of nowhere and only Ottway and half-a-dozen others survive.  They then have to traverse miles of uninhabited and freezing snow-plains, forests, rivers and mountains in the tenuous hope of reaching civilisation.  Unfortunately, they not only have to contend with the elements, but with a murderous pack of grey wolves, whose breeding territory they have landed in the middle of.  Pissed off at these human intruders, the wolves prowl behind them and along the fringes of their vision, intent on picking them off one by one.

 

The twist is that Ottway – thanks to a recent trauma in his personal life – was on the point of suicide before boarding the plane.  Yet when faced with killer wolves and the prospect of hypothermia, he becomes determined to keep himself and his co-workers alive.  However, it soon becomes clear that their mental and physical frailties are as much of a threat to their survival as the wolves are.

 

Even from this brief synopsis, it’s easy to see borrowings from earlier films.  The plane-of-oilmen-downed-in-the-wilderness scenario brings to mind Robert Aldrich’s 1965 adventure classic The Flight of the Phoenix, while watching the characters struggle through an unrelentingly hostile and claustrophobic icy setting it’s impossible not to think of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing.  The wolves, who unlike their human quarry are obviously at home in the environment, remain unseen for long stretches of the film and their invisible but continually-lurking presence ticks a couple of other movie boxes – the malevolent hillbillies in John Boorman’s Deliverance, for instance, or the vengeful Cajun hunters in Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort.  And the flesh-crawling wolf-howls that pepper the film’s soundtrack have, of course, featured in half of the gothic horror movies ever made.

 

But despite the familiarity of these plot elements, Carnahan and his cast do a very good job.  They don’t put a foot wrong in building up tension and atmosphere, and the unpredictably of what is going to happen next, and to whom, adds to the suspense.  (Though at one point a character did deliver an emotional and revealing speech that enabled me to guess how he would exit the movie later on.)  However, the escalating horror of the men’s plight – surviving a devastating air-crash, then battling hunger and hypothermia, and then having to withstand wolf attacks – will be too gruelling for some viewers.  Even the venerable and presumably battle-hardened American film critic Roger Ebert confessed that after seeing The Grey he was too upset to watch any more movies that day.

 

Some critics have mentioned the film’s philosophical tone.  There’s a throwaway reference to the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man – Werner Herzog’s elegiac but disturbing meditation on humanity’s place amid nature – and the characters have a few discussions about What It All Means between wolf assaults.  However, the philosophising doesn’t reach any conclusions beyond the ones that life sucks and that God’s a bastard if He exists at all.  Which are probably the conclusions I would come to in the same circumstances.

 

Carnahan is well served by his cast, whose faces (apart from Neeson’s) aren’t well-known, adding to their believability as ordinary Joes dumped in a horrendous situation.  (Dermot Mulroney plays one of them, admittedly, but I didn’t recognise him.  He’s aged a bit since the days of Young Guns.)  Neeson himself is extremely good.  In the past I haven’t rated him that much as an actor, mainly because of his thick Northern Irish brogue that dogs him no matter what character he plays – Germans (Schindler’s List), Scotsmen (Rob Roy), Jedi knights (The Phantom Menace), they all sound like they’ve just stepped off a bus from Ballymena in County Antrim.  But he brings a real intensity to the role of Ottway.  At the beginning of the movie he agonises over whether or not to stick his rifle-barrel in his mouth and end it all, while much later he bellows in fury at the sky and at a seemingly sadistic God, sounding like a disenchanted Reverend Ian Paisley.  One can’t help but wonder if this intensity comes from the similarities between Ottway’s back-story and the snowy landscape and the tragedy that befell Neeson in real life in Quebec in 2009.

 

There’s one criticism I have to make, however, concerning the film’s portrayal of wolves as ruthless and relentless killers.  This has infuriated American environmentalists, who’ve pointed out that the grey wolf is really a shy creature and a human passing through its territory would run a greater risk of being struck by lightning than being bitten by one.  (As the grey wolf has recently been removed from the Endangered Species Act in several western American states, and as a recent candidate for the office of American Vice President had a well-publicised fondness for shooting wolves from helicopters, environmentalists are understandably touchy about the subject at the moment.)  And I have to say that the behaviour and intelligence displayed by the wolves in The Grey seem unlikely in the extreme – at times, with Ottway talking ominously about breeding dens and about an ‘alpha male’ wolf that appears to be orchestrating the mayhem, it sounds like the wolves have spent their free time studying a DVD of James Cameron’s Aliens.  Furthermore, during the attack sequences, they appear so pumped-up, slavering and generally monstrous that they look less like wolves than like the beastie in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London.

 

Here’s what the website wolfwatcher.org has to say about the matter: http://wolfwatcher.org/news/all-news/the-movie-the-grey-wolfwatcher-has-an-insiders-look/.

 

Wolves are my favourite wild animal, so I’m not that happy myself about how they are depicted here.  But I guess that if film studios had always tried to treat people and animals fairly, an awful lot of classic movies would never have been made.  If, for example, Hollywood had been sensitive towards the feelings of Italian-Americans, we wouldn’t have got the Godfather movies, or Mean Streets, or Goodfellas.  If British filmmakers had respected the sensibilities of the Zulu nation, we wouldn’t have got that marvellous action epic Zulu in 1964.  And if Steven Spielberg had wanted to be nice to sharks, Jaws wouldn’t have swum our way in 1976.  So I will forgive The Grey for its wolf-demonisation because it’s a quality film – if a zoologically inaccurate one.

 

And as much as I like wolves, I would still really hate it if I found myself at a plane-crash site in northern Alaska surrounded by the bloody things.

 

As a footnote, I should mention that near the end of the film, Liam Neeson’s character says that his first name is John.  His name’s Ottway, John Ottway!  At this point I laughed – indeed, it was the first laugh I’d had since the film’s grim litany of aircrash-carnage and wolf-killings began.  The name won’t mean anything to international audiences, or to 99.9% of British ones, but John Otway is the name of an obscure, punky and eccentric-bordering-on-insane singer-songwriter from Buckinghamshire in England.  His song Really Free was a minor hit in Britain in 1977 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkYOZyNocrw).  He didn’t have another hit until 25 years later, in 2002, when he reached number 9 in the British singles charts with an effort called Bunsen Burner (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWOzQE9Isek).  The real John Otway, then, could teach Liam Neeson a thing or two about survival in the wilderness.