No matter what you hear, Neil Jordan's wonderful new film isn't about a glitter-rock-era transsexual coming to terms with who he/she is. Rather, it's about how that transsexual, one Patrick "Kitten" Braden (Cillian Murphy), copes with a world not at all happy that he knows full well from boyhood to adult girlhood exactly who she is. That's something all the more dramatic and precious within the current national climate of institutionalized anti-humanism and the attendant idea that people can be cured of their identities.
However much Jordan protesteth in the press, Breakfast on Pluto is closely connected to his very similar but maddeningly flawed The Crying Game and its Irish-Troubles-history companion, Michael Collins. The new film also pays more serious mind to the ambisexual concerns of Jordan's very silly Interview With the Vampire. In short, the director has finally found material Patrick McCabe's novel, which Jordan adapted that unifies his obsessions with politics, the Troubles and the dangerous fragility of machismo.
A swooping-camera introduction offers a pair of thickly accented, subtitled, talking CG birds who set the scene. (That's right: talking birds.) Anyway, it's the '60s, in a small Irish village, and foster child Patrick is already taking to wearing his disapproving mum's frocks and idolizing B-string glamour queen Mitzi Gaynor. He pals around with a black girl named Charlie (Ruth Negga) and a lad with Down's Syndrome (Seamus Reilly), and finds his only real adult support from kindly Father Bernard (Liam Neeson). Once he's become a lithe, becurled glam-drag teen, Patrick/Kitten moves to London to: 1) avoid getting pummeled by local unfriendlies; 2) search for his real, biological mum; and 3) find true love.
But life won't cut Kitten a break. Desperate for cash, she starts turning tricks and is almost killed by a psychotic gay hater (played, with winking irony, by Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry).
Politics hound Kitten: Her first boyfriend is a lead singer for a hilarious glitter-cowboy band (ex-Virgin Prunes singer Gavin Friday lends the role smoldering intensity), who turns out also to be running guns for the IRA. A deliriously fun night out at a club turns into a nightmare courtesy of an IRA bombing; in its abrupt, intimate randomness, this is the most matter-of-factly visceral vision of terrorism yet committed to film. What follows is a seamless mesh of loss, camp, hard-boiled epiphany and earned delights. More than in any film in memory, Jordan uses source music to underscore his scenario, and as a brilliant substitute for McCabe's exclamation pointÐheavy prose style. The filmmaker understands the way a critically indefensible tune becomes something transcendental simply by how one hears it. So Bobby Goldsboro's saccharine "Honey" becomes Kitten's theme song, while Harry Nilsson's nearly forgotten "You're Breaking My Heart" ("So fuck you!") becomes a daft, revolutionary fist-pumper. Jordan really gets the mission statement of '70s glitter rock: the reinvention of self via rock raw power and camp theatrics, represented here by choice cuts by The Glitter Band, The Sweet, Slade and T. Rex.
And Murphy? After out-Lorre-ing Peter with his squirm-inducing turn in Batman Begins, he repurposes his weirdly delicate beauty in a magnificent 360 to give us a Kitten who may sometimes purr, but otherwise avoids all the traps of drag approximation. You don't just accept Murphy's soiled innocent; you root for her.
Through all her Candide-like indignities the worst is a horrifically violent interrogation by British police we get the sweet sound of Jordan's most romantic conceit: that the unassailable integrity of Kitten's true self, clung to from childhood on, cannot help but enhance the humanity of everyone she meets. Even the most thuggishly violent cop ends up a new, better man after realizing the incredible courage it takes to be a girl like Kitten.