Beautiful Stranger
Michael Koresky on Breakfast on Pluto

Two things you must try to forget while watching Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto: Candide and The Crying Game. Both might bubble up in the forefront of your mind as easy thematic signposts, but push them into your peripheries. While the former reference point exists as a simplistic critical touchstone for those watching Breakfast on Pluto with an analytical or strictly philosophical eye rather than an emotional investment, the latter, Jordan’s masterful love story and one of the nineties’ most complex mainstream films, only relates to the director’s latest in a purely superficial manner.

Incidentally, neither film is about drag queens. In one recent, particularly knuckle-headed online Q&A, the interviewer opened her interrogation of Jordan by asking: “Could you talk about your interest in transvestites?” Jordan became understandably put off and seemed to sit out the rest of the interview with what came across in the text as thorough disinterest. Like the term “drag,” “transvestite” seems insubstantial in the face of such profound psychological human portraiture. But more importantly, The Crying Game, so rich in dualities, so incisive about the alliance of political and sexual urges, is a film about what is hidden, what’s bubbling below surfaces, while in Breakfast on Pluto all is revealed, bald-faced, unashamed, done up in buttons and bows. Breakfast on Pluto, a gleaming smile of hope in a rancid world made up of all different shades of intolerance, is the gloriously openhearted wish fulfillment of The Crying Game—the difference between the two films is as plain as night and day.

Surely, the film is to be taken seriously (“Serious, serious, serious” is its wide-eyed protagonist’s oft retort)—its attempts to introduce levity to where we might not normally see it are downright Dickensian. Therefore, many might distrust Jordan’s rainbow-bright fantasia as insincere or forced or even (gulp!) a distant cousin to Forrest Gump—yet while Pluto’s Patrick “Kitten” Braden may traverse decades of tumultuous politics and violence, it is not with ease, it is not untouched, and she is infinitely more proactive. Zemeckis’s slow-witted protagonist was preternaturally deluded; Kitten may remain an optimist, but it’s more her pragmatism that gets her from one epochal event to the next. Born in Tyreelin, Ireland, in 1958, Patrick is left at the doorstep of the town’s priest, Father Bernard (a warm, conflicted Liam Neeson), in a basket. After being raised by the squawking, abusive Ma Braden, a local pub owner, the child discovers the appeal of women’s clothing at an early age. In a bold move, Cillian Murphy, introduced as the teenage Patrick applying eyeliner, never appears “as a boy” within the film. In this case, while Murphy’s identity is always concealed, Kitten’s is completely revealed, and always without pretense. And in a performance that validates the young actor’s accruing of accolades, Murphy remains so completely in character from first frame to last that the rhythm of Jordan’s entire film grows reliant on him. With sing-song cadences that coyly refract everything she comes in contact with and popping blue eyes somewhat betrayed by their eminently wise and often hollow sunkenness, Murphy’s Kitten, a self-proclaimed “svelte gamine,” is as glorious, fabulous, and, yes, practical as she would like us to believe.

With Breakfast on Pluto’s 36-chapter, full-throttle narrative, its closest precedent in the Jordan canon could only be his 1998 masterpiece The Butcher Boy, which like this film was based on a novel by Patrick McCabe. That disconcerting, wildly vivid burlesque horror show couldn’t be further in tone from Pluto, yet it also couldn’t be closer in perspective: The Butcher Boy’s Francie Brady, like Patrick “Kitten” Braden, never doubted his intentions, stayed completely within his own mindset without compromise. Yet Francie was too abused by a thankless system that kept him on the fringes, and his social realities turned him, ever so gradually, into a monster. Kitten likewise narrates her own story, and the fabulist picaresque of her tale is a breathless whiz-bang of discrete episodes, however this time around, society, surprisingly, does not close its doors on our protagonist. “The poor boy never had a chance,” lament the townsfolk in The Butcher Boy. Thankfully, there is benevolence surrounding Kitten, and more often than not, he is met in his travels, en route to London to track down his long-lost mother, by other fringe-dwellers too distracted by their own eccentricities to notice Patrick’s abnormalities. Though danger lurks (Bryan Ferry’s elegantly creepy, bolo tie-wearing john being the most notable), Kitten manages to retain the ardor of her initially joyous narration through meetings with Brendan Gleeson’s riotously belligerent children’s playground performer, Gavin Friday’s deceptively romantic IRA goon-cum-Native American-obsessed rocker, and especially Jordan stalwart Stephen Rea’s dandy-ish, compassionate, and more than a tad exploitative stage magician Bertie.

While sticks in the mud will decry the constant use of pop songs to underscore Kitten’s journey, Jordan, a master in picking the perfect tune to both define and lend to irony to any given moment (The Crying Game’s “Stand by Your Man” both poked fun at and crystallized its film’s themes, The Butcher Boy’s “Where Are You?” granted emotional heft and grounding nostalgia to Francie Brady’s sign-off), has perhaps found his most pop-ready protagonist yet. As much as anything else, Breakfast on Pluto is about the serene melancholia of Michel Legrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the toe-tapping wanderlust of Middle of the Road’s “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” the pragmatic ingratiation of Nilsson’s “Me and My Arrow”—oftentimes, the songs will bounce and meld into one another and resonate long past their visual accompaniment.

This is not to downplay the film’s dramatic urgency and clever politics: Jordan’s liberalism has always manifest in fascinating ways, as he is never anything less than matter-of-fact, shown here in the scene in which Kitten’s best friend Charlie (Ruth Negga) makes a last-minute decision to not have an abortion—no speechifying or grandstanding, simply the emotional realities of her situation. Likewise, a particularly brutal British policeman (Ian Hart) turns out to be a conspicuously kind chap, even after mercilessly beating the tar out of Kitten while under the false assumption that she’s an IRA terrorist, while other films would prefer to merely demonize him. A little of this optimist whimsy can surely go a long way, but Jordan is able to circumvent all of the usual narrative pitfalls—Kitten never becomes a mere bystander to the swath she cuts through history. Late in the film, Jordan stages one of the best scenes of his career, when Kitten, dolled up in a sky-blue silken frock and honey-blonde curls glides seductively on a swing in a peep-show booth before the eyes of a surprise visitor. DP Declan Quinn’s every angle is exquisite, every hue pops like the most vivid Technicolor, yet Jordan never for a moment sacrifices the emotional reality of his main character (who would likely be delegated to the supporting cast as Village Weirdo #3 in most other films), capturing in amber-tinted close-up, profile, and silhouette Murphy’s simply stunning lucidity. It’s a moment that recalls Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, yet has a flavor and vision all its own; the peep show, doubling as a Catholic confessional booth, coalesces all of Jordan’s religious, social, and sexual concerns into one perfect image.

Above all else—politics, history, music, Voltaire—what’s most important in Jordan’s universe is his unapologetic sexual individualism. Throughout many dispiriting moments, never once is Murphy’s Kitten made to mourn her own sexual “confusion”: seemingly, nothing could be more determinate. Whether Patrick’s primary reason for living out her life as Kitten is due to reasons sensual (she does fall in love more than once with quite masculine men during the course of the film) or oedipal (when first applying makeup, she models herself after South Pacific movie star Mitzi Gaynor, whom her mother is said to have resembled) seems beside the point, as no psychological motivation is dwelled upon. At one moment Kitten is called “lad,” while in the very next scene he is dubbed “Miss.” It’s a testament to Jordan’s blasé yet proprietary view toward sexuality (never “otherness,” he’s always warmly inclusive) that one of his riskiest flights of fancy lands as light as a feather: two robins bookend Patrick’s tale with subtitled, tweeting commentary. Like Patrick, they’re at once earnest and acidic, and completely enchanting. And from a birds-eye view, who can really judge?