The Crying Game: Special Edition Review

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 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 (an epicene name like Jaye and 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 a drag queen. 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 that isn’t disqualified by 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. 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). 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.

The sexuality of Jody and Fergus is deliberately undefined. We first see Jody coming on to Jude at a funfair, but the plot twist reveals him as either gay or bisexual. (At the time, homosexuality was grounds for dismissal from the armed forces.) Before Dil is revealed to Fergus as a man, Fergus is already in deep: he has already had a blow job from Dil. 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 a man. 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.)

This Special Edition of The Crying Game is released by Optimum in their Classics range, and is encoded for Region 2 only.

Jordan made The Crying Game in Scope: along with We’re No Angels it’s his only film in the wider format. (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 DVD is transferred, as you might expect, in a ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The disc is faithful to the look of Ian Wilson’s photography, quite dark-toned in places with quite a few scenes at night or inside the Metro Club.

The Crying Game was made with a Dolby SR soundtrack, just a year or two before digital soundtracks became ubiquitous. A Dolby Surround track is provided, and that would have been sufficient, as the film never had the most adventurous of sound mixes. Generally the surrounds are used for ambience and Anne Dudley’s score, but there’s not much in the way of directional sound. The 5.1 remix is much the same as the 2.0, though it does improve on it by its use of the subwoofer, first with a train going overhead early on, and with the gunfire and explosions later. There are sixteen chapter stops but no subtitles, which is a continuing shortfall for Optimum’s otherwise often good DVDs.

First extra is an audio commentary from Jordan, and it’s well-worth listening to. He talks about the making of the film, certain filmmaking choices (such as his use of Scope, so that he can frame dialogue and reaction in the same shot), and his generally apolitical stance, despite the subject matter of some of his films.

The extras continue with an alternative ending 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 copy owned by Stephen Woolley who provides an optional commentary on it with Jordan: needless to say the picture quality is distinctly ropey. It is presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and runs 4:54, including two introductory text pages. Jordan’s words are extracted from his feature commentary.

Next up is an excellent making-of documentary. It is divided into four parts, with a play-all option: “Irish Luck” (4:56), “English Love” (23:41), “Discussing The Crying Game” (14:30) and “The Marketing of an American Independent” (7:00). This is a documentary 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), Angus Finney (writer of The Egos Have Landed, about the rise and fall of Palace Pictures) and others. There’s also a noticeably frank exchange of views between two commentators with differing views of the Irish situation.

The extras are concluded by the theatrical trailer (1:29) which is rather grainy and contrasty, and trailers for three other Optimum Classics releases: The Piano, The Killing Fields and Stormy Monday.

A key British film of the 1990s, The Crying Game marks both the end of an era (it was the last gasp of Palace Pictures, who had been a vital force during the 1980s) and the beginning of a new one: it revitalised Jordan’s career, gave Stephen Rea his break into American film, and became a turning-point in the career of Miramax, no doubt the key US independent of the decade. The film’s commercial success prompted their buying out by Disney; if it had flopped, they might well not have survived. But most importantly, it stands up as an excellent film, whether you come to it fresh or on repeat viewings. Optimum’s DVD is flawed by the lack of subtitles, but is otherwise very good.

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