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An outcast of a boy-girl leads a charming life in ’60s London

Of all the times and places in history for a boy to want to look like a girl, surely one of the best was 1970s Great Britain. With David Bowie and T-Rex throbbing across the airwaves, even straight fellas wanted to leave a big question mark over what was in their pants and what they did with it; a gay kid had a leg up in the quest for cool.

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The otherwordly Cillian Murphy (above and below) plays Kitten, a charming Irish-Catholic outcast exploring sex, identity, and politics in 1970s London.

Even so, Ireland’s Catholic schools weren’t the happiest place for such a youngster to find himself waiting for the Glam generation to emerge from its cocoon. For Patrick, a gentle soul with a knack for bucking the system while seeming oblivious to it, the trouble is compounded by the knowledge that Mum isn’t his real mother. Many alienated youngsters may imagine their hardline parents couldn’t possibly have sired them, but in Patrick’s case it’s true. It’s only a matter of time before he heeds the call to go looking for his real mother, who was “swallowed up by the biggest city in the world,” London.

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Kitten (left) in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto

Intolerant priests will be the least of Pat’s concerns in this long voyage. But as depicted by director Neil Jordan, whose affection for outcasts has animated such films as Mona Lisa and The Crying Game, his travails have an almost sweet cast to them: Our hero may be beaten, imprisoned, whored out, and firebombed, but there’s still the sense that he’s in some way leading a charmed life, if only because that’s what he makes it.

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The tone is largely the doing of Cillian Murphy, the otherworldly star of 28 Days Later and Red Eye. Murphy is bone-thin and big-eyed under his mop of curls, utterly convincing as “Kitten,” who never seems to be trying to pass himself off as a girl so much as he is longing to be cared for like one. His ideal of companionship comes from Honey, the 1968 tearjerker in which Bobby Goldsboro is faithful beyond the grave to a lover who appears to have died from emotional vulnerability. With his long lashes and breathy voice, we see how men both straight and gay succumb to his charms. (At one point, Kitten’s suitors include a pencil-moustached Bryan Ferry; at another, he plays Nancy Sinatra to a glam-rock version of Lee Hazlewood.) Even detectives who suspect he’s a terrorist eventually are won over by a charmer whose surface helplessness belies single-minded determination.

Kitten’s odyssey is a long one, with occasional lags that may test some viewers’ patience (the film’s length is exacerbated by some Irish accents so thick you might wish for subtitles). But the diversions that pad the running time are often integral to the film’s charm: It’s easy to understand why Jordan would be reluctant to cut Kitten’s short employment as a Mickey Mouse-style costumed entertainer in a kiddie park, or his fantasy romp in Emma Peel’s leather catsuit (where for once the shy girl is overtly aggressive), or the hilariously irreverent story he concocts as a possible solution to the mystery of his parentage.

Breakfast on Pluto

Dir. Neil Jordan; writ. Jordan, Pat McCabe; feat. Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Ruth Negga, Laurence Kinlan, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, Conor McEvoy, Gavin Friday (R)

The protagonist may be strange, but his movie often feels familiar. Kitten lives on the far fringe — away from fame and fortune and real-life references — of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine; a climactic scene in a sex club is transplanted from Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (and its poignancy would cut deeper if it weren’t so clearly something we’d seen before); an episode involving Stephen Rea both recalls the actor’s Crying Game plight and slips in an alternate version of the punchline that ends Some Like it Hot; and that Emma Peel micro-adventure has a playfulness reminiscent of Ralphie’s war on Black Bart in A Christmas Story.

In the end, these little alternating moments of surprise and familiarity wouldn’t keep the film afloat if it weren’t grounded in Neil Jordan’s sense of humor and humanism. Kitten is a character worth caring about, even if it takes a while to get to know him/her; the story isn’t for everyone or perfectly told, but it does right by its characters.

By John DeFore


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