Like a cinematic Roman candle, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto bursts onto the screen ablaze with more color, more ideas, more nerve, more invention and more heart than just about anything imaginable — reminding us anew that Jordan is quite probably the finest filmmaker working today. He’s certainly the most stylish, but even more, he’s that rarest of the rare, in that style and theme are on equal footing.
With the Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” on the soundtrack, he introduces us to the film’s hero, Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy in a wholly astonishing performance), in full drag as he pushes a baby in a pram through the streets of an Irish town. It’s immediately obvious that Patrick is an accepted feature of the place as a workman cries out, “How about it, Kitten? What’s the chance of a bit tonight?” “Why, yes, of course, boys. I’ll leave the front door open and you can all troop in and give me a jab,” Patrick calls back, silencing him. “Not up to it then, you innocent, shovel-wielding, horny-handed sons of the native sod,” decides Patrick, leaning in to address his infant charge, “Not many people are, munchkin — 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 ‘Ooh!’ she shrieked, ‘I told you from my best side, darlings!'”
From here, Jordan’s film takes flight — quite literally — as a pair of robins (“those red-breasted busybodies”) spy on the delivery 30 years earlier of the infant Patrick at the doorstep of parish priest Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), whereupon the story that “not many people can take” begins in earnest.
This marks Jordan’s second translation to the screen of a novel by Patrick McCabe. The Butcher Boy, from 1997, was the first (McCabe co-authored both screenplays). While on the surface, Pluto appears a much lighter work than the frequently grim and disturbing The Butcher Boy, Jordan’s new film is very much part of the same world. It’s just a different slice of it.
Both films are firmly grounded in their respective eras, and both nail those eras in ways almost no one else has even approached. Moreover, both are the stories of outsiders in small Irish towns, and both outsiders find themselves in situations that ultimately rob them of most, if not all, of their tenuous support network of friends. The stories are very Irish, very Catholic, very specific … and yet strangely universal in that the overriding sense in both is the human desire to belong, and to love and be loved.
Breakfast on Pluto is a happier, more hopeful story, but one that is infused with a deep sadness and longing just at the edge of every frame, and in every nuance of Murphy’s performance. As with The Butcher Boy, the title is taken from a song — in this case a 1969 British pop song by one-hit-wonder Don Partridge (“We’ll visit the stars and journey to Mars, finding our breakfast on Pluto”). Though the song is referenced in the film, it only appears over the end credits. Yet pop culture — mostly in the form of songs — informs the entire film in a way that is barely suggested by the source novel.
This not only results in an amazing soundtrack of late ’60s and early ’70s music, but is the sort of thing that feeds Patrick’s dreams and defines them — from the ideal of simple companionship (Harry Nilsson’s “Me and My Arrow”) to defiance (Nilsson’s “You’re Breaking My Heart”), sardonic self-image (Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey”) and the wholly anthemic (T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution”). And those in the audience who fall into the age range of Jordan and McCabe will recognize and respond to these things (remember how cool we felt in 1973 listening to a song — “You’re Breaking My Heart” — with a chorus that ended with, “so f**k you”?).
Similarly, there’s an earlier, charming sequence where the 10-year-old Patrick (newcomer Coner McEvoy) absorbs lessons in sophistication from Patrick Macnee in an episode of The Avengers on TV (The Murder Market episode, for the encyclopedic among us); it was a basic introduction to coolness and savoir-faire for many of us of that generation. Patrick is purely a product of his time, and part of that time’s search for a deeper meaning to it all — a meaning that wasn’t effectively addressed by the traditional methods that then existed.
The film’s story is that of a search. On the surface, it’s Patrick’s search for the mother (Eva Birthistle, Bloody Sunday) who abandoned him on the steps of his real father’s parish. But really, the search — which takes us through a love affair with a traveling rock musician and IRA gun runner (Gavin Friday) to a stint as a “Womble” in a children’s amusement park to becoming the assistant to a romantically inclined magician (Jordan regular Stephen Rea) to being mistaken for an IRA bomber to prostitution and further — is Patrick’s search for himself. And whether he finds himself doesn’t actually matter all that much. It’s the attempt that counts — or, as a philosophical biker tells him early in the film, it’s the journey itself that matters.
And what a glorious journey Patrick has been given by Jordan — one that’s at once funny and playful, that’s touched with greatness and is heartbreakingly sad. Most movies are successful if they do one thing well. Breakfast on Pluto does more than one thing — and not only well, but with a level of brilliance all too rarely encountered. Repeat viewings pay dividends each time (I’ve seen it four times myself), as they do with all great films.
And this is one great film. It’s possibly the best I’ve seen in five years. Rated R for sexuality, language, some violence and drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke