Breakfast on Pluto: Cillian Murphy and Ruth Negga on a quest for family.
Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game stands as one of the most significant films released in the past thirty years, if for no other reason than that it’s a suspense thriller that owes nothing to Hitchcock. It is also probably the single most essential gay-acceptance film ever made. By the time we discover that she is a he, even the most homophobic observer, drawn in by audience word-of-mouth that refused to reveal the film’s secret, would be hard pressed not to have been won over by Dil’s story.
The years immediately following The Crying Game found Jordan directing his one major commercial nod (Interview with a Vampire), a pair of muddled Irish films celebrating descents into madness (Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy) and The Good Thief, an unspeakably useless remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful Bob le Flambeur. At a kill-or-cure point in his artistic growth, Jordan found Lourdes in Breakfast on Pluto, novelist Patrick McCabe’s vivid account of one Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy), a transgender teenager searching for her mother amidst the turmoil of IRA bombings and glam London in the seventies.
For decades, biopics that open in flashback have tended to adhere to a more conventional set-‘em-up-to-watch-‘em die structure (La Bamba, Terms of Endearment, The Passion of the Christ). But before looking back, Breakfast on Pluto kicks off by subverting two of the oldest tropes in the business: here, the unwanted baby left on the church doorstep and the leggy beauty — she causes the harassing construction worker to halt in mid-wolf-whistle upon discovering things aren’t what they seem — are one and the same. Cute, talking Disney-fied CG robins herald the arrival of a foundling deposited next to the milkman’s bottles. (Given the subject matter, these mechanical birds owe more to Blue Velvet than Mary Poppins.) Father Bernard (Liam Neeson) dispatches the urchin to the care of barkeep Ma Braden (Ruth McCabe), a domineering old harridan who is aghast to discover her nine-year-old consignment modeling foster mum’s dress and lipstick. (Strange how his older step-sister doesn’t draw any flack for wearing a man’s necktie as part of her school uniform.) Around the time young Patrick begins grappling with the concept of gender identity, another pressing question emerges that will haunt our lead over the next 135 minutes: who was the woman that dropped Patrick on the steps of a church in Tyreelin, Ireland?
Despite the unconventional outward appearance, Patrick is not without a posse. Down syndrome, used as an unremitting punch line in The Ringer, released the same year, is given an honest, non-sentimental face in the form of Laurence (Seamus Reilly). Brilliantly relying on a character whose genetic disorder presents more than a little built-in public rejection, Jordan introduces an intellectually challenged, socially scorned friend with whom Patrick can identify. Along with Charlie (Ruth Negga) and Irwin (Emmet Lawlor McHugh), the foursome fancy themselves as IRA rebels, but their ploy amounts to little more than Laurence trying to reclaim the streets of Tyreelin dressed as one of Dr. Who’s robots. It is Laurence’s understanding father (Paraic Breathnach) who introduces Patrick to several truths concerning his mother: the prettiest girl in town, she bore more than a passing resemblance to American movie star Mitzi Gaynor, and he once spotted her on a London street.
Feeling that “the biggest city in the world swallowed up my mother,” and with nothing more than an, “I’ve tried my best. I’m off” to his foster family, Patrick dons glam-rock duds and mascara and heads to England. Not unlike Oz’s Dorothy, our heroine, who by now asks to be referred to exclusively as “Kitten,” encounters four father substitutes along her road to enlightenment. Father Bernard may have done his best when it came to placing the orphan, but grown-up talk of Kitten’s mother’s whereabouts finds him making a hasty exit from the confessional. The outwardly straight Billy Hatchet (Gavin Friday), front man for the glam-rockabilly band Billy Rock and the Mohawks, is besotted by the gorgeous Kitten and momentarily becomes her knight in shining armor. Bertie (Stephen Rea), a low-rent magician/hypnotist captivated by Kitten’s tragic tales (and the bruises on her neck), invites him to be his audience ringer. And upon awakening in a miniature kiddie castle, Kitten finds John-Joe (Brendan Gleeson), an alcoholic theme-park employee who lands him a job dressed in a “Wombles” costume. Their one common thread: just like mom, at some point, they all abandon Kitten. In spite of these many suitors, Jordan draws the line with his absolute refusal to go into the more graphic details of Kitten’s sex life. Intimacy is implied, but never actualized, as if not wanting to draw attention away from Kitten’s ultimate pursuit.
Despite the ever present political themes at work in Jordan’s films, he doesn’t necessarily view these beliefs as vital. According to the production notes, Jordan “spent my twenties in Dublin and London. The fact that there was political violence in Ireland was like a blight on everybody’s life. What interests me is how individuals work with what they’ve been given… Breakfast on Pluto is really more about a beautiful soul than about politics or violence.” This leads to one of the film’s few flaws. Any IRA agent worth their salt would never confuse Kitten with a bomb wielding terrorist. But Cillian Murphy’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. Those who saw 28 Days Later and Batman Begins had to have been taken aback by Murphy’s delicate bone structure and piercing green eyes. Murphy feels right at home in the ‘70s milieu. When we first meet, Patrick is all about polyester shirts, bell-bottom trousers, and a Claudette Colbert coiffe. From the get-go, The Crying Game presented its unwitting audience with a female character. Without the infamous cutaway, the question of Dil’s sexuality never would have arisen. (To those of you who claim to have instantly cracked the ‘secret’ by spotting Dil’s Adam’s apple, I politely respond, “Bullshit.”) Unlike Tootsie (a film that asserts men make better women than women do) and Victor Victoria (Julie Andrews as a man? She’s not that good of an actress!), there was never any doubt in my mind as to Murphy’s representation. By the time Kitten sits perched atop a peep-show swing fielding confessions from a gaggle of perverted businessmen, you will have completely forgotten that you’re watching a man play a woman.
Aside from a few piano selections composed by the director’s daughter Anna, the film dodges any trace of a traditional score. Movies that convert pre-existing songs into background music simply to bolster soundtrack sales have long become an affordable solution for producers reluctant to hire the services of a composer and orchestra. Not since George Lucas’ American Graffiti (yes, he did direct at least one film that addressed humankind) and Peter Bogdanovich’s overlooked They All Laughed has a film made such remarkable use of popular music as a commentary track. Jordan is no slouch when it comes to song placement. Remember, it was Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” that ironically underscored The Crying Game’s opening credits.
Kitten turned to the popular music her mother listened to as a means of identification. According to Jordan (who personally chose all the soundtrack selections), Kitten “kind of believed in the naïve sugary hopefulness of the lyrics of pop songs.” From the Rubettes’ bouncy “Sugar Baby Love,” played underneath our introduction to Kitten as she pushes the tram, through the lyrics for Middle of the Road’s outrageously appropriate “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” (“Where’s your momma gone, Little Baby Bird”), every song is positioned with purpose. I never thought I’d say it, but the film single-handedly justifies the existence of Bobby Goldsboro’s super-sickly death ode “Honey” and Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” a song that at one point found us all reaching in repugnance for our car radio tuners.
Jordan’s “How does somebody survive a deeply aggressive world just by being themself?” approach is almost as intense as Kitten’s quest for family. Even with a backdrop of political violence, police brutality, and social ignorance, Kitten’s incredible journey is rife with fairy tale good cheer; nothing will stop her from getting at the truth. There’s not an ounce of self-pity or cloying, clichéd “I’m more woman than you’ll ever be and more man than you’ll ever get” dialogue to derail the journey, just the enlightened sound of one of cinema’s most resolutely compassionate voices.