Ireland / UK / France, 2005
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 15 October 2005
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
There is one word that has been coming up again and again in reference to Breakfast on Pluto, and that word is “Gumpish”. In its portrayal of a young Irishman’s single-minded desire for female impersonation amid the chaos of 1970s Northern Ireland, Neil Jordan’s new film has garnered comparison to a film about a certain Southerly, sweet-toothed naïf. The picaresque nature of the film’s narrative — along with Patrick “Kitten” Braden’s uncanny knack for landing in the center of the ideological crossroads of his day — has perhaps a cursory resemblance to the wayward fortunes of Hanks’ history-prone Vietnam vet and ping-pong enthusiast.
But the comparisons end there. Jordan’s film may seem like the tale of a gay Gump bumbling through history, but Kitten is neither as clueless nor as apolitical as he may seem. Wending his way through the violent, divisive world of Belfast, and then through the unforgiving landscape of London, Kitten tries to chart a different path and forge an identity for himself (as a “herself”) amid us-them binarisms and restrictive identity pigeonholing.
Nor is Kitten the recipient of anything like Forrest’s dumb luck. Born the secret, illegitimate son of a Catholic priest and his housekeeper in a Catholic country, young Patrick grows up in the care of an unsympathetic pub-owner who has little patience for a son who models dresses and lipstick after Emma Peel on The Avengers. The words “gay” and “homosexual” do not figure at all in Kitten’s world, though there are some nasty equivalents tossed around. So, Kitten soon realizes that he must create his own identity, one that transcends those that the rest of the world has set in place for him.
Once Kitten’s androgyny finally outrages his headmaster and gets him expelled from school, he leaves the pub and his small town behind, embarking on a journey that will take him from the volatile world of occupied Northern Ireland to the “biggest city in the world” — London — the city that “swallied” his mother up. In search of recognition, in search of an identity, and, most of all, in search of love, Kitten braves black-bereted IRA heavies, butch glamrockers, angry hookers, and Wombles while recasting the grim story of his life as a fairy tale, a spy story, a romance, or a mystery (depending on his audience). All the while, Kitten maintains the same defiant masquerade, enacting this fairy tale on his own terms.
As a curious result of this, the other phrase bandied about in reference to this film is “off-putting.” Depending on how one interprets viewers and critics, such an epithet could be seen as either suspicion about the film’s politics or homophobia. Either way, one can mostly attribute the film’s ability to put some viewers “off” to Cillian Murphy’s performance, which cannily conveys the character of Kitten as precisely the type of ingenuous, impish (and quite beautiful) lady that he wants to be. The actor wholly inhabits the role of Kitten in the way that Kitten wholly inhabits the identity that he creates for himself. Even while being pummeled by London policemen or strangled by an oily sadist (played by a purring Bryan Ferry), Kitten maintains the mask of the innocent waif, the wide-eyed and pig-tailed persona that he has created for himself. While such a staunch position may seem unnerving, foolish, even masochistic in the face of often-mortal danger, it is this refusal of victimhood and all of the other positions prescribed for Kitten by society that makes him such a fascinating and courageous character. Even in the face of the worst circumstances, Kitten carves out a space for himself that subverts the sociopolitical context that has tried so hard to exclude him.