Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy) wants too much. Put another way, Kitten wants what everyone else seems to have, the sort of basics most folks take for granted, like, mothers and fathers and stable identities. Actually, Kitten is pretty happy without the last: as a boy, he’s dressing up in feather boas and wearing makeup, much to the horror of his gnarly foster mother (Ruth McCabe) in 1960s Tyreelin, Ireland. His favorite song is Bobby Goldsboro’s lamenting, lamentable “Honey,” and his favorite story is his own, which he narrates effusively in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto.
As tends to happen in Jordan’s films about spirited outsiders (see: Michael Collins or Butcher Boy, also based on a Patrick McCabe novel), Kitten’s sense of limbo doesn’t limit him as much it inspires him to resist expectations. Filled with desire and gumption, he makes his way through a brief tour of Irish history. His unstable sense of self begins when Kitten’s a baby, left in a basket on the doorstep of local parish priest Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), who also happens to be his father. The momentary object of the priest’s lust (revealed in rowdy flashbacks), the young, blond Eily Bergin (Eva Birthistle) leaves the child and disappears. In fact, in these early moments, she appears only as a pair of sensible shoes and stockings, and thereafter as Kitten conjures her, boarding a bus, her back to the camera as she rides off, gracefully and hauntingly, into the quixotic urban distance.
Breakfast on Pluto
Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Ruth Negga, Laurence Kinlan, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, Conor McEvoy
(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)
Renaming himself Kitten, the boy undertakes to disrupt the routines around him. This means he’s regularly dragged out of classes while pronouncing his desires, sexual, sensual, and familial. In particular, he yearns to see his mother, whom he imagines to look just like Mitzi Gaynor (at the time, an international pinup star). Realizing that the boy will never “settle down,” Father Bernard eventually reveals what little information he has on Eily’s whereabouts, namely, she’s gone to London. Never mind that this is nearly two decades later. Kitten is determined to find her, as if the sight of her—or perhaps her rejection or embrace, once and for all—will fix him, and he can then “move on.”
Kitten’s travels provide for much regaling. En route to England, he’s briefly adopted by a glam rock frontman. Wholly enchanted by big-eyed, short-skirted Kitten, Billy Hatchet (Gavin Friday), goes so far as to develop a role in the band’s stage show for the young beauty—dressed like an American Indian maiden, Kitten looks coy and overwhelmed by his man, a performance that may or may not indicate genuine joy at being so beloved. When the bandmates inevitably resent him, however, Billy agrees to stow away his lovely, leaving Kitten off in a trailer hidden away in the countryside. Here Kitten passes the time by discovering caches of weapons: yes, Billy’s affiliated with the IRA, and so that real history that Kitten prefers not to notice intrudes on his romantic adventures.
This becomes a pattern in the film, as his childhood friends, Charlie (Ruth Negga) and Irwin (Laurence Kinlan), now married, pop up to retrieve Kitten from serial precarious situations, and these repeatedly raise the specter of national and religious identity, just the aspects of self-definition that Kitten rejects. When a mutual acquaintance (born with Downs Syndrome, no less—his “innocence” double-underlined) is killed in a bombing, Kitten’s bubble is briefly burst (being resilient in a self-deluding way, he soon finds a way to deny and desire simultaneously, once more). Among Kitten’s distractions are a children’s play-park clown (Brendan Gleeson), whose short temper makes him a bit scary for the kiddies, and a magician named Bertie (Frears regular Stephen Rea), who creates a stage show that incorporates Kitten’s mother fixation, as well as some grandiose knife-throwing. As Kitten’s story develops in chapters, none of these mentors, lovers, or protectors is on screen for more than a few minutes, which only seems to overstate Kitten’s fragmentation.
As Breakfast on Pluto lays out parallel tracks for Kitten’s self-seeking and the turbulence of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, intersections are at once obvious and loosey-goosey. Individual psycho-sexual identity and national commitments don’t provide for easy cross-referencing back and forth. And yet the draggy elements of Kitten’s self-performance do intimate the considered artifice of any display and declaration of identity. (The commentary on various scenes offered by whimsical digital robins is considerably less effective.)
While the risks Kitten takes on his own (including an obviously reckless date with a violent john, played by Roxy Music’s Brian Ferry) mean he needs to be rescued repeatedly, he remains willfully unaware of the networks of violence that shape his environment. (The fact that he’s come up Catholic has something to do with this—the film underlines the violence of the structuring mythology and the mangled bodies that populate the Church’s imaginary.) By the time Kitten just happens to be at a London nightclub at the time of an IRA bombing, the film is overkilling the connections between types of identities (marked by difference, affinity, or desperation). After he’s blown across the floor, he’s picked up by the cops for interrogation (they do eventually feel badly for their abusive methods) and blamed in next day’s headlines (“Transvestite Terrorist”). It’s clear that his several worlds can’t help but collide.
Still, Kitten persists in the pursuit of his mother, whether myth or dream or restless wish. That he finds other sorts of mothers, in himself, in Charlie, and to an extent, in his own absent, guilt-ridden, and finally, doting father. Presumably, the point here is not as reductive as everyone can get along. If only those robins wouldn’t make it seem so.