Over the holidays, I had the misfortune of being dragged to see the movie Narnia. To anyone who asked, my clenched-jaw review was just two words: talking beavers. I was reminded of this when I saw Breakfast on Pluto, another cinematic fairy tale with severely Catholic overtones. The first image of Pluto is a pair of -- cough -- talking robins. Praise Be, they are minor characters whose conversation is relayed through gossipy subtitles rather than celebrity voiceover and creepy anthropomorphic CGI effects. But it did make me wonder, is this truly the era of New Queer Cinema like everyone is shouting, or is it the Age of Chattering Beasts?
Anyway, Breakfast on Pluto, directed by Neil Jordan, is not about these birds but the fantastical creature left on the doorstep next to them. Like Jordan's The Crying Game, this film is a genre-bending, sexually ambiguous, episodic fable that features a stunningly beautiful androgynous hero/ine. Cillian Murphy plays Patrick "Kitten" Murphy, Beauty and the Beast wrapped in one, though she never sees herself as anything other than delightfully Herself.
The story is a sprawling memoir -- Kitten, abandoned as a baby, grows up openly cross-dressing in a small Irish town, very likely the child of the local parish priest (played mournfully by Liam Neeson). She endures the nuns and the neighbors and the political troubles for as long as she can, and then sets off for London to find her biological mother. The only clue she has to go on is the town's communal recollection that her mother looked like Mitzi Gaynor and was once spotted on a double-decker bus near Picadilly Circus. But no matter -- like all other obstacles, Kitten dances past the impossibility of her quest with a breathy giggle, a smack of lip gloss, and a delicate wave of her hand.
The film then follows the intrepid ingenue through a kaleidoscope of appalling hardships -- exploitation, homelessness, police beatings, murderous tricks, and the random, ever-escalating violence of the IRA. She finds sanctuary along the way in the giant kiddie-costume of something called a Womble, a love-affair with the world's saddest magician (Stephen Rae), a peepshow gig as a masturbating girl on a swing, and finally, in caring for a friend's out-of-wedlock child. She's like a transsexual Forrest Gump ping-ponging through the historical and political events of the mid-1970's, somehow always seeing her blown-up box of chocolates as half-full.
I loved many things about this movie, Cillian Murphy's exquisite performance most of all. But as with other Neil Jordan films, I'm left feeling that the whole didn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. The movie's tone is quite odd, zinging back and forth between whimsy and horror. There are loopy dream sequences, Druid bikers, Wild-West glam-rockers, and those recuring talking birds. But people die. Awfully. And Kitten is abused again and again.
The film is also driven by a Cameron Crowe-like soundtrack of syrupy pop songs from the 1960s and 70s. I have to admit to a certain low-level hostility to the whole use of music-as-plot-bridge in today's movies -- it feels to me like cheating, and I was disappointed to see Neil Jordan rely so heavily on this device. Jordan knows what he's doing, no doubt -- the music is designed to make you both melt and cringe at the same time. The songs are so maudlin, it's like the easy-listening equivalent of eating your hot fudge sundae after it has dissolved into a big bowl of warm gloop.
Still, the acting is worth the price of admission alone, and the glam-rock inspired costumes are the most delicious eye candy I've seen in awhile. There's also an intriguing Christ-like aspect to Kitten: she's an Innocent (of spirit anyway); she often speaks in parables; she's continually persecuted, and yet she remains a force of unconditional, unwavering, uncompromised love. Murphy delivers this portrait subtly and believably. He should be nominated as both Best Actor AND Best Actress for his performance. What he brought to the simple throwaway line "Mine too, you big fireproof man" will tug at my heart, I imagine, for the rest of my days.