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The Republic of Pluto

Breakfast on Pluto is a gender-bending odyssey through '70s-era Ireland

At the end of Breakfast on Pluto, protagonist Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy) calls himself "The Phantom Lady" — an apt description, given how difficult he is to pin down. Abandoned by his mother and fathered by a priest (Liam Neeson) who doesn't acknowledge him, Patrick grows up to be a transvestite who prefers to be addressed as "Kitten."

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Kitten belongs firmly in the camp of characters from fiction and film who don't shape history but ride almost passively in its wake, reminiscent of Candide or Forrest Gump. And like Hedwig of the Angry Inch fame, Kitten straddles the borders of gender, nationality and political causes. Just what do you call him, or her? Is he Breakfast on Pluto's antihero or its heroine?

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Like Kitten himself (herself?), Breakfast on Pluto throws off labels but proves so doggedly creative and affectionate, you embrace it on its own terms. Director Neil Jordan, co-adapting Patrick McCabe's novel, takes a wide-eyed ramble through 1970s Ireland and England, frequently veering from realism to fantasy, as if its spirit is too big to be limited by reality.

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Jordan openly acknowledges the film's picaresque, episodic structure by providing numerous Dickensian chapter headings. As a baby, Kitten is abandoned on a doorstep alongside the milk delivery by his mother, whom passing birds (in subtitles) observe resembles Mitzi Gaynor. As Patrick grows up in a foster home, the mystique of his glamorous mom no doubt feeds his early fascination with cross-dressing and makeup. For instance, when given a sports magazine to discourage his gay tendencies, Kitten imagines himself running across a football field wearing a silver ball gown.

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Kitten fits in with his repressive religious education about as well as you'd expect, so he skips out on his foster home in a seemingly vain attempt to track down his birth mother, last seen "swallowed up" by London more than a decade earlier.

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Kitten takes shelter in an storybook amusement park village, only to be hired by a brawling actor (Brendan Gleeson) as a plush costumed animal. He chats up a sad-eyed Englishman (Jordan mainstay Stephen Rea), who offers Kitten the job as victim/assistant in a low-rent magic act.

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Jordan explored gender-crossing in The Crying Game and Irish politics in Michael Collins, and here he pays subtle homage to both. In Pluto he seems less interested in those films' themes and more energized by the anything-goes narrative and early 1970s period details, particularly glam fashions and music. Pop artifacts take on multiple meanings — the mechanical Daleks of "Dr. Who" provide an early piece of childhood comedy, then figure into a starkly tragic accident involving Irish terrorism and a bomb-disposal robot.

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Just as Kitten drifts through the underground communities of two countries, the film tends to flit from incident to incident, and characters seem to exist primarily for plot convenience. Kitten's old friend Irwin (Laurence Kinlan) becomes a reluctant terrorist for the Irish Republican Army, while his girlfriend, Charlie (Ruth Negga), becomes unexpectedly pregnant, bringing out Kitten's nurturing instincts. We rarely feel on intimate terms with them as people, with the exception of guilt-ridden Father Bernard. Neeson captures both the pathos and the humor in the priest's tormented conscience.

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Murphy proves a quirky, physically striking performer. With his blue-white eyes and doe-like but masculine features, he provided some unnervingly icy turns in his summer psycho roles in Batman Begins and Red Eye. Despite his dainty actions and breathy, almost inaudible lilt, Kitten's not a convincing "woman," but that makes a kind of sense — he rarely concerns himself with "passing," despite his obsession with glamour. Murphy's portrayal never resorts to sentiment or self-pity as Kitten exists on an almost druggy, above-it-all wavelength of both denial and optimism.

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Kitten's very detachment proves disarming when he finds himself on the wrong side of the Irish conflict. Blasé in the face of death, Kitten turns aside the wrath of a pair of bloodthirsty IRA goons. When brutal English police inspectors mistake Kitten for an IRA bomber, he spins a wild confession (imagining himself as a crime-buster a la Diana Rigg of "The Avengers"), and the cops turn from tormentors into tough-love surrogate dads.

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Pluto's very lack of politics proves highly provocative, as if a deliberate counter-argument to the internal debates of Munich. In that Steven Spielberg film, Israeli agents obsess over the use of violence to protect home and family. In Pluto, Kitten's dogged search for home and mother-love transcend any worldly concerns. Kitten abhors violence and cruelty and otherwise views any kind of nationalism as being too "serious" to be of any interest.

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Near the end of the film, Kitten pretends to be an employee of the British telephone service, and when a boy (who may be his half-brother) asks if Kitten should have a uniform, he replies, "No, I shouldn't have a uniform." His statement is, characteristically, true and false at the same time. Kitten's stylish wardrobe, from the lipstick to high-heeled boots, proves as proud and distinctive as the colors of any nation. But when it comes to political causes, Kitten belongs on another planet entirely. Pluto is as good as any.