Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on March 8, 2017
If you didn’t see it when it first opened, there’s really no way to describe the visceral charge that went through audiences when The Crying Game first started to roll out in select American theaters just after Thanksgiving in 1992. Bill Clinton had just won his first presidential election, grunge was exploding, the Cartoon Network had just launched and Sinéad O’Connor was still in the public consciousness after ripping up a photo of the Pope on live TV. Moviegoers were experiencing whiplash with a wild array of films like Unforgiven, Basic Instinct, Wayne’s World, Scent of a Woman and Batman Returns turning into significant hits by year’s end, not to mention indie smashes for Robert Altman with The Player and some newbie named Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. It was a strange time.
Nobody really knew what to expect when The Crying Game unrolled with another canny marketing campaign from Miramax, playing up the danger and intrigue of the story without any specific plot details. The film hadn’t been a particular hit when it first opened in the United Kingdom, though it did go on to rack up six BAFTA nominations and the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film. Miramax realized it had something special, and the gamble paid off when initial reviews and audience reactions focused on a certain bombshell surprise lurking around the halfway point. That secret became the centerpiece of the film’s word of mouth and promotions, escalating it to a major national release in rapid time for a small art film and turning it into a pop culture sensation. By the time the film had earned six Oscar nominations (and a win for Original Screenplay), people were still doing an admirable job of keeping the main twist under wraps despite a memorably cheeky parody in host Billy Crystal’s opening number for the Academy Awards.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that this film is so, so much more than that one plot twist. Irish writer-director Neil Jordan had experienced some critical acclaim with his films and a modest indie hit with Mona Lisa (1986), but he was hardly a household name and was coming off of the frustrating experience of a two-film stint in Hollywood with the troubled and heavily altered High Spirits (1988) and the solid but wildly underseen comedy We’re No Angels (1989). Back home in Ireland he licked his wounds with the appealing but equally undervalued drama The Miracle (1991) and spent considerable energy trying to get his next film off the ground, a moving and wildly unpredictable yarn called The Soldier’s Wife. According to Jordan, his friend Stanley Kubrick (a longtime UK resident by this point) advised him to change the title, so Jordan turned to the name of a haunting mid-1960s pop song, “The Crying Game,” recorded by such artists as Dave Berry, Brenda Lee and The Associates. An electronic-tinged rendition of the tune was even commissioned for the film, performed by Boy George and produced by the Pet Shop Boys, which became a substantial pop success in its own right.
If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil anything substantial. The film is new to Filmstruck as part of an essential theme, A Movie History of the IRA, and at least for the first 40 minutes or so, you’ll see how easily it slips in with fellow titles about “the Troubles” like The Long Good Friday (1980) or Hidden Agenda (1990). Jody (Forest Whitaker), a British soldier in Ireland visiting a country fair during his time off (in County Meath, Jordan’s childhood home), slips away for a quick tumble in the hay with denim-wearing tart Jude (Miranda Richardson). That turns out to be a trap as she’s really an IRA member who kidnaps him with her two cohorts, Fergus (Stephen Rea) and Maguire (Adrian Dunbar), who keep Jody bound and often blindfolded in an isolated house in the woods. Jody and Fergus strike up an odd kind of camaraderie, with Fergus particularly intrigued by a photo of Jody’s love back home, Dil (Jaye Davidson), a London hairdresser. Soon a pair of violent incidents forces Fergus into hiding, and he decides to pay Dil a visit…
At this point the narrative veers into some highly unusual and gripping territory, all beautifully shot and laced with clever Hitchcock references that extend into the character names, many derived from Vertigo (1958), which Richardson later confirmed to be absolutely intentional. What’s remarkable here is how humane and moving the film manages to be considering how deeply flawed and potentially violent everyone is; you really grow to care about the central relationship, and somehow Jordan manages to end it on just the right note of humor, wistfulness and narrative blanks still left to be filled. Interestingly, the financiers originally balked at this resolution and insisted Jordan shoot a more traditionally happy one, which can be found on the DVD (or UK Blu-ray) release if you’re so inclined. Thankfully saner headers prevailed, and Jordan’s original version is what we have now.
Of course, Jordan’s film turned out to be a big calling card for most of its cast members, with Rea (Jordan’s lucky charm in several films) and Davidson racking up Oscar noms for their roles here, Richardson getting one for the same year’s Damage (1992), and Whitaker winning Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland (2006). Keep an eye out and you’ll also spy Jim Broadbent, years before his Supporting Actor win for Iris (2001), in a scene-stealing bit as a bartender who’s apparently seen everything imaginable under the sun and able to find humor in all of it.
Speaking of that theme song I mentioned further up, I have to give props to the soundtrack of this film, which has an eerie and very rich score by Anne Dudley, a founding member of 1980s band Art of Noise and winner of one of the most ridiculous film score Oscars ever for her fleeting work on The Full Monty (1997). I played the CD of this one to death when It came out and got a kick out of the mixture of vintage bar music, electro cover versions (including “Let the Music Play,” oddly enough), and that perfectly placed rendition of “Stand By Your Man” performed by Lyle Lovett. If you’ve seen it before, now is as good a time as any to pay another visit with this essential classic of both English and 1990s cinema. If you haven’t seen it before… well, don’t read anything else about it and get ready for a truly wild ride.
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