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January 6, 2006

The dining game

Cillian Murphy makes a very pretty woman

“Not many people can take the tale of Patrick Braden, aka St. Kitten, who strutted the catwalks, face lit by a halo of flashbulbs as ‘Oh!’ she shrieks, ‘I told you, from my best side, darlings.’ ”

So begins Neil Jordan’s latest film, combining many of the elements for which the director of The Crying Game has become famous.

Picture it: Ireland, 1958. A wee bairn left on the doorstep of a rectory, handed off by the kindly local priest to a woman who runs the local pub. The child, young Patrick Braden, grows up into a most unconventional hero, or, in this case, heroine.

As Patrick “Kitten” Braden grows up, his natural androgyny begins to lead more to the feminine side of things. Coming home to find her foster son in his sister’s dress, applying Ma Braden’s own lipstick, she loudly bemoans the day she took him in, unknowingly starting him on a quest to find his real parents.

While growing up transgendered can be a trial, Kitten at least has an inner circle of friends: Charlie, whose boyish name belies her girlish charms; Irwin, whose flirtation with the IRA leads to his downfall, and doomed Laurence, the boy with Down’s syndrome.

Being Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, the conflict between the British government and the Irish Republican Army is at the heart of many of the tragedies in the film. Simple human nature is the cause of the rest.

Throughout it all, however, Kitten’s will and spirit enable triumph to shine through tragedy.

A steamed-open letter containing a child-support check reveals the identity of Kitten’s father, and Laurence’s kindly dad starts Kitten on the road to meeting the mother who ran off to London, the “phantom lady” who was swallowed whole by the city that never sleeps, except from dusk ’til dawn, as Kitten discovers when she gets there.

Along the way, she is mistaken for an IRA bomber after the authorities discover what she’s packing in her skirt after the nightclub in which she’s dancing is blown up. The good cop/bad cop routine to which she’s subjected undergoes a strange metamorphosis later, when the “bad cop” who beat her so badly turns good Samaritan, saving Kitten from a life of prostitution and putting her in a position to eventually connect with the father who would not own her. He then gives her the one thing she has wanted for over a decade: the exact location of the mother who left the basket on the doorstep, next to the bottles of milk.

The film marks the second Jordan adaptation of a novel by Patrick McCabe, the first being the 1997 picture Butcher Boy. It also continues Jordan’s apparent devotion to the sexual outlaw, seen in his early film Mona Lisa and cemented in the classic The Crying Game.

Breakfast on Pluto, like Butcher Boy and The Crying Game, makes much use of the Britain-IRA conflict. However, in this film, it is not careful planning or counterterrorism or outthinking an opponent that wins the day, it is Kitten’s own optimism, an eternally sunny outlook and commitment to a surrealistically bright outlook that triumphs over the darkness in the world.

Kitten lives her life as a pop song, all boy-meets-girl and bubble gum. It’s a theme that carries throughout the movie, with the casting as well as the scripting.

Roxy Music front man Bryan Ferry turns his New Romantic persona on its head as a suave killer, while punk icon Gavin Friday plays Billy Hatchet, a glam-rock bar band leader who gives Kitten that first taste of love.

However, the film rests squarely on the slender back of Cillian Murphy, who first came to prominence in the United States in the cult pseudo-zombie film 28 Days Later. As Kitten, he is startlingly pretty no matter where on the gender spectrum he currently resides--slightly androgynous to full-blown transvestite. His brilliant blue eyes and fine-featured face lend themselves admirably to the role, and he’s a consummate enough actor that he doesn’t let the character devolve into a charade.

For true Neil Jordan fans, it should be noted that Stephen Rea, Fergus in The Crying Game, is indeed in the movie, and one of the most interesting characters in a film filled with them.

If there is one drawback to Breakfast on Pluto, it is perhaps only the timing of its release. Many people who will thoroughly enjoy this movie may not hear about it, or hear enough about it, and instead wind up simply going to see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal naked on the range.

For the love of Pete, see Breakfast on Pluto! A truly talented director (not that Ang Lee isn’t, but Neil Jordan has never sinned as badly as The Hulk), a phenomenal cast, and computer-generated, subtitled robins making snide comments! How can one go wrong with a film like that?



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