FILM / Crossing boundaries: Adam Mars-Jones on Neil Jordan's The Crying Game

THE CAREFUL first shot of The Crying Game (18) sets up in a subtle way the film's peculiar territory. A town by a river in Northern Ireland, with a funfair in progress. Percy Sledge is singing 'When a Man Loves a Woman'. The camera slowly tracks across the river, so that our perspective on the town changes: the colour of the village green contrasts with the pale green growth on some sand dunes, and it comes as a little shock to realise how near the sea actually is. The town is only seen in this first sequence, but the opening shot is a clever abstract announcement of what the film has to offer - a tightly focused story, with large implications, much concerned with crossing over, with the changing of sides and the dissolving of boundaries.

Neil Jordan has survived the disorientating acclaim given to his early films (Angel, Mona Lisa) and the more or less justified dismissal of later, Americanised projects (High Spirits, We're No Angels). Now he has written a screenplay that combines elements of both Angel - Stephen Rea as star, Irish terrorism, obsessive guilt - and Mona Lisa - unglamorous London locations, obsessive passion and a leading player, Jaye Davidson, who doesn't look so very different from Cathy Tyson in the earlier film.

There's nothing commercially calculated, though, about Jordan's recapitulation of his past successes. The Crying Game is positioned quite deliberately in one sort of no man's land or another.

The usual complaints, when American stars appear in British movies, is of glamour beyond the call of duty, but no such charge can be made to stick in the case of Forest Whitaker, cast as Jody, a British soldier taken hostage by an IRA unit. Whitaker is tubby to an extent that may provoke squawks from Army Recruitment Offices, but he also displays another kind of softness, the odd gentleness that is his stock in trade as an actor. For much of his time on screen, Whitaker wears a hood, which muffles his performance much less than the London accent he produces so diligently - the sounds he makes aren't wrong, any of them, but they don't have the expressiveness of his natural voice.

Jody's captors include a hard man (Adrian Dunbar), a hard woman (Miranda Richardson) and Fergus (Stephen Rea), a man much softer than he wants to be. Rea's sadly hopeful face, with its wide range of hangdog expressions, fits him perfectly for the part, but this opening section of the film never quite hits its stride. Its subject, a sort of Stockholm syndrome in reverse, where a kidnapper becomes attached to his captive, is tricky enough - inherently sentimental enough - to need a full-length film, and here Jordan tries to pack it all into what is only a part of his project, the first movement of his little symphony.

When Jody needs to urinate but doesn't have the freedom of his hands, Fergus must assist at a super-intimate moment. Fergus reaches round flinchingly from behind Jody to undo his trousers, but when it comes to doing them up again afterwards he must be facing his captive. Jody says gently, 'I know that wasn't very easy for you,' and moments later they are both laughing hysterically. There's something just a little hurried about the progress of these events and emotions, so that you get a sense of how the sequence is meant to work rather than being affected by it directly. But considering how the fortunes of its production company, Palace, fluctuated during the making of The Crying Game, it's remarkable how confident are the pacing and staging of the film, its little flips seeming the result of internal contradictions, not outside pressures.

At one point, Fergus reaches into Jody's pocket to retrieve a picture of his girlfriend Dil, and Jordan's camera, normally level-headed, tips over in unison with the reaching hand. This is a rather over-emphatic moment and almost a literary camera-movement, to announce that this is the point at which Fergus' world begins to turn upside down.

When Fergus moves to London to work as a labourer, the film changes gear from Angel to Mona Lisa. For this section the opening image is not the crossing of a river but the breaking down of a wall, a more traumatic representation of the film's bringing together of realms normally kept apart.

Fergus becomes obsessed with Dil, or perhaps he only remains obsessed with Jody. As Dil, Jaye Davidson conveys a curious stillness that may partly be inexperience (Davidson has no previous acting experience) but nevertheless suits the part. There is a slight interior blankness that makes obsession possible, an inertness without which glamour is only camp. In one sequence, Dil sings the film's title-song in a pub. This is the sort of scene that occurs in hundreds of movies, where we are supposed to be spellbound without thinking 'production number', but here it works. The performance is both accomplished and uninvolved, haunting precisely because it is inexpressive, guarded despite the torchy temptations of the song.

It is the hallmark of Neil Jordan's romanticism (as Mona Lisa amply demonstrated) that it poses as a critique of romanticism. Up to a point, this film insists that love is blind, that obsession comes from a number of sources, none of them pure, that masculinity is a fiction whose costs are borne largely by women. But then suddenly everything turns around. The blindness of love becomes not its defining flaw but in some strange way its grandeur, even its vindication. The film's interrogation of sexual identity comes to an abrupt halt, and masculinity is let off not only without a caution, but with all its prerogatives restored to it.

The Crying Game follows the same strange trajectory with its more ambiguous situation, where love may be only guilt and the obsession with a woman may be an obsession with a man. At a moment that is almost arbitrary, the compulsive choices that the film has been treating with surprisingly little indulgence start to be celebrated all over again, as if they were freely made and contained no impurities.

When The Crying Game ends, with a tracking shot in the reverse direction from the one in its opening sequence, a shot this time that takes us gently away from a couple who have overcome the divisions between them, it may be that only a minority of viewers will be fully convinced by the film's blend of weirdly jarring elements - political thriller, love story, meditation on sexual identity. But even if The Crying Game is only almost terrific, it deserves to be celebrated, and it should be enough - if there is any justice in the world of film- making, which there clearly isn't - to get Neil Jordan's career back on track.

'The Crying Game' opens tonight

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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