Men in frocks have enjoyed bumper business at the box office in recent decades – “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” made more than half a billion dollars between them back when that was a lot of money, and the cross-dressing film that made Neil Jordan famous (spoiler alert, if you’re one of the last few people on the planet who hasn’t seen it), “The Crying Game,” didn’t do so badly for a $3 million investment by its producers.
The Oscar-winning thriller took in close to a hundred million, with Jaye Davidson playing a decidedly less frumpy frau than the eponymous characters in those bigger Hollywood hits.
Jordan revisits this territory in his latest film, “Breakfast On Pluto,” an exquisitely warped transvestite tale co-written with author Pat McCabe, based on McCabe’s book of the same name. This darkly comic fable follows Co. Cavan native Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cillian Murphy), eternal optimist, ex-orphan, and drag queen, on a colorful journey from rural Ulster to London to find his birth mother.
Born to a priest and his housekeeper in the border village of Tyreelin in the late fifties, and dumped immediately into loveless foster-care, Kitten seeks escape from a miserable childhood in dress-up games.
He comes of age during the glam rock era, that brief interlude three decades ago when Ziggy Stardust, T.Rex and The Sweet showed up on our television sets as often as the news and weather forecast, making it acceptable for farm boys in Tobercurry to clump into their local pub in silver platforms, bleached mullets and shiny blouses without having aspersions cast on their sexuality.
But aspersions are indeed cast when evil stepmother Ma Braden (Ruth McCabe) catches Kitten wearing her daughter’s favorite frock, and throws him out of the house. Thus begins Kitten’s quest to find his real mother, a high-heeled odyssey that transforms the unloved youth into a country and western singer in squaw drag, a magician’s comely assistant, a suspected IRA killer and a transvestite hooker on the damp streets of London.
On a route rife with dangers, Kitten flits like a glamrock gadfly through the IRA’s escalating war against British targets near his village and the Loyalist retaliations that followed (Jordan references the May 1974 UVF explosion in Monaghan town that killed seven people) to collide horrifically with the urban bomb attacks in London pubs frequented by members of the British armed forces.
Kitten manages to skip across the surface of this perilous life without ever taking it seriously, and survives his sleazy episodes with innocence intact to enjoy something approximating happiness in the end.
An actor with two hits to his credit already this year, playing baddies in Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and Wes Craven’s taut thriller “Red Eye,” Murphy gives an extraordinary performance as the skittish Kitten. He tackles the role fearlessly, morphing from Marc Bolan elf to Irma Vep spy-girl to demure businesswoman without laddering his tights, and delivers on the hints at deeper talent in “Girl With A Pearl Earring” and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” Maintaining a blithe nonchalance In the face of loathing and disgust directed his way by British soldiers, London detectives and IRA hardmen for being a shocking pink anomaly in a green-orange conflict zone where no one is exempt from taking either one of two sides, Murphy’s Kitten maintains a blithe nonchalance that floats across the film like a feather on the breeze.
The job of anchoring the lightness of the story for this wilful flibbertigibbet is admirably handled by Irish acting heavyweights Liam Neeson, as the perplexed priest Fr. Bernard, Kitten’s father; Stephen Rea, (in a role not unlike his doleful OTR character in “The Crying Game”) as the coy cockney magician who takes Kitten under his wing; and Brendan Gleeson as Uncle Bulgaria, in a preposterous theme-park Womble costume.
Dublin rock icon Gavin Friday makes an indelible mark as Kitten’s first love Billy Hatchet, butch rockabilly frontman of a showband called The Mohawks. Music culled from the showband-era experiences of pop-obsessed writers Jordan and McCabe dominate the soundtrack, half-forgotten minor hits selected with the exhileration of teenagers in a greasy caf