FILM / Cries and whispers: Scorched by Hollywood, Neil Jordan is back in Britain and back on form. John Lyttle reports

The title of Neil Jordan's latest film enjoys a certain aptness. To borrow from the ballad, he does know all there is to know about The Crying Game.

To explain. During the early Eighties Jordan was catapulted to fame by the success of Angel and Mona Lisa, morally complex noir thrillers dominated by Catholic imagery and the madonna-whore complex. The Irish-born director swiftly made the logical jump to Hollywood only to see his career splutter and stall. Working from a David Mamet script, Jordan undertook We're No Angels, a remake of the Bogart-Ustinov jailbirds-on-the-run hit. The film continued his fascination, evident in his earlier work, with redemption and the guises that troubled souls adopt, but it also marked his debut as a 'jobbing' director. Shot amid hints of creative disagreements with Robert De Niro, its star, the project was generally considered a financial and critical write-off. It wasn't exactly helped by an advertising campaign that falsely promised a broad comedy.

Then there was High Spirits, a Gaelic spectral romp that was supposed to be broad comedy. That was snatched from the editing suite to be hacked by the moneymen - between 15 and 25 per cent of the footage was removed. As the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael noted: 'The producers were hoping for something of the order of National Lampoon's Irish Vacation,' while Jordan was trying for something like A Midsummer Night's Dream. What was finally shown to international audiences was a disaster. Thereafter, the studio grapevine predictably suggested that Jordan was 'difficult'. From this side of the Atlantic it looked like yet another replay of an all-too-familiar story: ambitious foreign talent heads for California, is used, abused and spat out by the cruel and conniving studio machine.

Jordan demurs. 'Well, We're No Angels wasn't a blockbuster but it did OK at the American box-office. It wasn't this complete failure. And the reviews were mixed. Some of them were quite positive. At least in the States.'

The director pauses, gathers his thoughts. When he speaks again he sounds both bewildered and exasperated. 'But over here . . . they really seemed to hate it.'

Indeed they did. If the fable of the innocent abroad in Beverly Hills has the smooth contours of an oft-told tale, then the vitriol sprayed on his overseas efforts by critical countrymen is also part of a disagreeable tradition. Would critical reaction have been tempered if Jordan had managed two runaway hits instead of two middling flops? Possibly not. Failure might attract abuse - one offended party actually implied in print that Jordan was lying about the executive interference that disfigured High Spirits - but success would have surely invited all-out attack. That's the other part of the tradition. 'Whatever you say about the American way of making films,' Jordan observes wryly, 'at least they're not negative.'

As it was, Jordan was variously accused of 'going Hollywood' (translation: he was dating the actress Beverly D'Angelo), selling out and - reheat those old chestnuts - not supporting the British Film Industry.

'What British film industry?' Jordan asks. 'When I left for America there was at least something. I don't know what there is now. It's falling apart. Yet you have people gloating over the collapse of Palace Pictures. After everything Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell have done and tried to do. After all the projects they've handled and talent they've encouraged. They got films made. It's just terrible.'

Equally vexing were the pressures applied to The Crying Game, one of Palace's last ventures before going belly-up in a sea of red ink. There was Jordan, widely presumed to be making a comeback, with the ever-present threat of closure hanging over him like a noose. 'Yes, it made things difficult. It was all happening as we were shooting. We had to scale back, re- think what we were doing. We finally managed to make it for three million.'

None of the troubles shows on screen, although the 'Troubles' reappear with a vengeance. After the quiet misfire of The Miracle, shot near Jordan's home in Bray, Co Wicklow, The Crying Game exploits Ireland, the Irish consciousness and its sexual mores in infinitely more offbeat ways.

It begins obviously enough: an IRA volunteer, Fergus (Stephen Rea), helps kidnap a black British soldier (Forest Whitaker). He bonds with the captive and, when the soldier dies, Fergus escapes to London. There he keeps a watchful eye on Dil (Jaye Davidson), the squaddie's beautiful girlfriend. Rea's guilt soon yields to obsession, caught as he is by Dil's hot-ice brand of wilful femininity. Passion carries all before it. So far, so good. 'But that was where I would get stuck,' Jordan says of his script, originally titled The Soldier's Wife. 'I couldn't seem to get beyond a certain point. Then I had an idea . . .'

The idea marches The Crying Game straight into the minefield of contemporary gender politics. The themes of Angel and Mona Lisa - how we search for a moral framework, how we casually succumb to pop culture's most deceitful romantic illusions - fuse violently, yet by the film's mid-point the thriller elements seem secondary to Jordan's bizarre comedy of sexual manners. As in farce - or fairy-tale (all Jordan's films are essentially fairy-tales) - everyone is pretending to be something or someone else. Even Miranda Richardson, playing a terrorist, dyes her hair and affects a Louise Brooks bob. In fact, Richardson is, in conventional terms, the strongest character on screen, a truth that probably won't save The Crying Game from party-line feminist thinkers determined to be scandalised by the portrayal of Dil as black, exotic and alluring.

'Oh give me a deaf and dumb cripple and I'm happy,' Jordan mutters, mimicking the voice of his more politically correct critics. He's been down this route before with the racial and sexuality issues of Mona Lisa - which might make Jaye Davidson's startling resemblance to Cathy Tyson a deliberate in-joke. 'No, No. Why would I do that? It's not an in-joke. But my treatment of women? I do have a way of looking at the world. It can't be helped. It's there. It's the way I see things. I can't tie it to an ideology.'

Still, The Crying Game pushes Jordan's madonna-whore fixation into uncharted territory. And in its own provocative, playful and pulpy way, it finds a neat way of resolving the dichotomy. Whatever complaints it triggers, the picture is an undeniable return to form. You can guess that it will be seriously debated and analysed, in the manner of The Company of Wolves - just like in the good old days before We're No Angels.

But the film is already in the can and Jordan is thinking of tomorrow, not yesterday. 'The next film, Jonathan Wild, will be big budget,' he offers. So is there anything he misses about the studio system? 'Yes,' says Jordan, keeping a straight face. 'The money.'

(Photograph omitted)