The Crying Game
Some of this review is revised and updated from my previous DVD review of The Crying Game for this site in 2006, here.
Although most people probably know the plot twist by now, please be advised that this review contains major plot spoilers.
Ireland, the early 1990s. Black British soldier Jody (Forest Whitaker, whose performance overcomes a shaky London accent) is captured by an IRA group led by Maguire (Adrian Dunbar). Fergus (Stephen Rea) is one of them. As Jody is kept in captivity, a bond develops between him and Fergus. Jody asks Fergus a favour: if he is killed, could Fergus go to London and look up his girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson)…
Neil Jordan began as an award-winning writer of prose fiction, and broke into the film industry as an assistant to John Boorman on Excalibur. In return, Boorman helped set up Jordan’s first feature, Angel, made for Channel 4. Given Jordan’s literary origins, what struck many critics and viewers of Angel was Jordan’s visual sense. Admittedly Chris Menges’s camerawork helped out the first-time director, but with different DPs in later features with different subject matter Jordan showed that that keen eye was very much his own. Whether the intention was fantasy or heightened realism, his next two features, The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa, were both considerable successes.
Then, just at the point when Jordan seemed like the great white hope of British/Irish cinema, Hollywood called and he stumbled. High Spirits was a SFX-laden fantasy-comedy that was taken out of Jordan’s hands and is embarrassingly unfunny. Jordan then worked for hire on We’re No Angels, in which he, scriptwriter David Mamet and stars Robert De Niro and Sean Penn create an indigestible result. Both flopped at the box office. Jordan then returned to this side of the Atlantic and his previous producer, Stephen Woolley, to make the small-scale and low-key The Miracle. Few people saw this in the cinema, though I was one of them: I haven't seen it since, but I remember it being interesting if not totally satisfactory and probably worth reassessing. By 1992, Jordan’s career was at a very low ebb.
The Crying Game began life as The Soldier’s Wife, a screenplay Jordan had written early in his career. He had written the first section but had ground to a halt afterwards: what eased the block was the idea that the soldier’s wife should turn out to be a man…and the rest of the story followed easily. Jordan considered making this as his second feature after Angel, but concerns over the IRA-themed subject matter (and the presence of a similarly-themed recent film, Cal) made the idea a hard sell, so Jordan and Woolley made The Company of Wolves instead. He returned to The Crying Game after the commercial failure of The Miracle, feeling if he couldn’t get this script – which he considered amongst his best work – made into a film, he would retire from filmmaking and return to fiction.
The production of The Crying Game was fraught with difficulty. No American company wanted to invest in the film because of its subject matter. The budget was so tight that Woolley resorted to maxing out credit cards and appropriating the Scala cinema takings to keep the production afloat. The budget is all up there on the screen though: Jordan still managed to shoot the film in Scope and include such pieces as the long floating-in-air opening shot, not to mention the blowing up of the glasshouse. Then there were casting difficulties, particularly the role of Dil. Many people thought the role uncastable – one of them being Jordan’s friend Stanley Kubrick. Needless to say, the actor had to be an unknown and to pass convincingly as a woman. Jaye Davidson was an associate of Derek Jarman’s and was spotted by casting director Susie Figgis at the wrap party for Edward II. The result was perfect casting (having an epicene name like Jaye and being a slightly-built 5’3” helped), and a remarkable example of a non-actor brilliantly directed. (Davidson went on to act in Stargate but has since retired from acting.) Some people – gay men and women in particular – have quibbled that you can tell that Dil is not a cisgendered woman. That may well be true, but beside the point: Fergus is far more innocent and more easily taken in…and it’s certainly the case that audiences worldwide have been too. I can’t personally comment: the twist was given away to me before I saw the film. However I can say that the film isn’t wholly dependent on this, and works perfectly well on a second or third viewing. Jordan doesn’t cheat: there are hints and clues along the way, and nothing is disqualified by later plot revelations.
The Crying Game opened in the UK in October 1992 with a rather low-key almost arthouse release. Critics were generally positive, though some, like the late Alexander Walker, lambasted the film for its supposed pro-IRA stance. A then-current IRA bombing campaign was a further disincentive for British audiences to see the film. Then Miramax opened the film in the USA, with a publicity campaign centred on the mysterious twist in the plot…and they had a success on their hands. Oscar nominations followed: Rea, Davidson and editor Kant Pan were all nominated, as was Jordan as Best Director and the film for Best Picture. However, the only winner was Jordan for Best Original Screenplay.
The film is structured in three acts of roughly the same length, about 35-40 minutes each. However, each act is distinctly different in tone. The first one, set mostly in the glasshouse, is an intense, almost theatrical piece and darkly funny. Act two finds Fergus in London, under the alias of Jimmy, working as a labourer, and we follow the development of his relationship with Dil. Then Jude (Miranda Richardson) and Maguire reappear in Fergus’s life.
Although the qualities of the film’s direction and acting have always been apparent, what struck me, watching it again, is how much it is really driven by Jordan’s writing. The “romance” between Fergus and Dil is deliberately deconstructed and ironic, often mediated by Col the barman (finely played by Jim Broadbent) – and this manner of discourse is mimicked by Fergus/Jimmy's employers at the building site This is a gay bar, even if Fergus doesn’t realise it: if femininity is something that can be posed or adopted, then so can the trappings of a love story. This is further continued on the soundtrack and its suggestive – and occasionally subversive - use of songs: from Sam Cooke’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” over the opening credits to Lyle Lovett’s version of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” at the end. Identity is mutable for most of the characters we see, involving changes of name and appearance – often done by means of changes in hair style or colour. Not for nothing is Dil employed as a hairdresser.
The sexuality of Jody and Fergus is deliberately undefined. We first see Jody coming on to Jude at a funfair, but is he (in hindsight with the plot twist) gay or bisexual, a question complicated further by Dil's being transgender – a word, as Juliet Jacques points out in her essay in this release's booklet points out, not in currency in 1992. Another complicating factor, watching this film again ten and a half years after the last time I did, for my DVD review linked to above, is that public understanding of trans issues, mine included, is greater now than then. At the time the film was made and set, what would have been defined as homosexual activity would have led to Jody's dismissal from the armed forces, so Jody had a secret of his own. What also comes across is that the film's love story is not just between Fergus and Dil, but between Fergus and Jody as well, especially towards the end when Fergus cuts Dil's hair and dresses her in cricket whites (surely way too big for her?) in an attempt to turn her into a surrogate Jody. Before Fergus finds out Dil's “secret”, he is already in deep: he has already had a blow job from her. We don’t know of any other sexual history for Fergus (Jude is a colleague, not a lover), but it certainly doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to be sexually attracted to someone with male genitalia. At a time when some people have found it expedient to deny the existence of male bisexuality, Jordan’s film seems in its acceptance of this possibly more radical now that it did then. (Jordan returned to some of this film’s themes in 2005 with Breakfast on Pluto.)
Now twenty-five years old, The Crying Game is still an impressive film, and one of the best in Jordan's now somewhat becalmed directing career. (He's most recently been involved as creator and one of the directors of the television miniseries The Borgias.) A key film of the 1990s, it's now available on Blu-ray.
The BFI's dual-format release of The Crying Game comprises a Region B Blu-ray and a Region 2 DVD. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review.
Jordan made The Crying Game in Scope, shooting with anamorphic lenses, somewhat surprisingly given the very straitened budget and filming circumstances. At the time of my original review. along with We’re No Angels it was Jordan's only film in the wider format, though it has since been joined by The Brave One and Byzantium. (It’s odd that he used it for a fairly intimate drama/thriller and a broad comedy, while more epic-scaled films like Michael Collins and Interview with the Vampire have been in 1.85:1.) The Blu-ray is in the ratio of 2.40:1, from a 2K scan of the original negative. Ian Wilson's cinematography looks much as I remember it from one cinema viewing and previous viewings on television and DVD, with the colours true and grain natural and filmlike.
The Crying Game was made with a Dolby SR soundtrack, just a year or two before digital soundtracks became ubiquitous. The soundtrack is rendered in LPCM Surround (2.0). This has never been the most adventurous of sound mixes, with the surround being mostly used for ambience and Anne Dudley's score, with occasional directional effects. There's no LFE channel, but the low end does get a boost from such sounds a trains going overhead and gunfire and explosions. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing.
The first extra is an audio commentary from Jordan, which is well-worth listening to. He talks about the making of the film, certain filmmaking choices (such as his use of Scope, so that he could frame dialogue and reaction in the same shot), and his generally apolitical stance, despite the subject matter of some of his films. He also talks about the films he saw while growing up, which have influenced his work, more European than Hollywood.
On the disc are two trailers. The main one (1:37), is preceded by an instantly-nostalgic “15 trailer for 18 film” card. The second (0:53) comprises a still of the poster design as critics' quotes scroll past and Boy George's version of the title song (played over the end credits of the film) is on the soundtrack.
The extras continue with an alternative ending (4:55) that Jordan had to write and shoot in an attempt to make the film more commercially appealing. Jordan and Woolley did so, closing off a London street and bedecking it with fake snow and hiring a Louma crane, in full knowledge that it would never be used. Just as well, it’s a very false “happier” ending, with an excruciating nod to Some Like It Hot. This ending only survives as a VHS: needless to say the picture quality is distinctly ropey. Jordan provides an option commentary and makes it clear he thought filming this ending was a waste of already limited resources.
The making-of documentary (50:24), carried over from the previous DVD, is subdivided into parts. It is mostly dominated by the people behind the camera: Stephen Rea is the only cast member present. Along with Jordan and Woolley, interviewees include co-producer Nik Powell, former Scala cinema manager Jane Giles (author of the BFI Modern Classics book on the film) and Angus Finney (writer of The Egos Have Landed, about the rise and fall of Palace Pictures). There’s also a noticeably frank exchange of views between two commentators (Danny Morrison and Malachi O'Dougherty) with differing views of the Irish situation. These two men show us around parts of Belfast in “Northern Troubles” (8:50), expanding further on their views.
The BFI''s thirty-two-page booklet begins with a prominent, and justified, spoiler warning. “'It's Funny How Things Go': Identity, Politics in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game” by Ashley Clark is an overview of the film, particularly discussing its themes. Juliet Jacques's “The Crying Game”, referred to above, discusses the film from a transgender perspective. Finally, there is a lengthy overview by Brian Hoyle of Neil Jordan's career, discussing each of his films in more depth than is usual in such pieces. Also in the booklet are credits for the film, brief notes on the extras and the transfer, and stills.