The 1980s were an intense decade for Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan. He had made his directorial debut in 1982 with Angel, a film executive produced by John Boorman, garnered critical acclaim for his gothic fantasy horror The Company of Wolves (1984), as well as his neo-noir crime drama Mona Lisa (1986) and had two commercial flops with the comedies High Spirits (1988) and We’re No Angels (1989). Last but not least, he started writing the screenplay for The Soldier’s Wife, a film that would later be renamed The Crying Game because of Stanley Kubrick’s argument that the former title would have had audiences expecting a war film. After finding out that a movie with a similar plot point had already been made, Jordan decided to put the project on hold, only to return to it several years later. Frank O’Connor’s 1931 short story titled Guests of the Nation served as the inspiration for the shelved script—in it, soldiers of the IRA form an unexpected connection with the Englishmen they hold captive and are bound to kill. But the film’s pre-production process was in no way seamless, for this particular political topic, as well as the director’s aforementioned box office flops, contributed to Jordan’s troubles with getting the much-needed financing. And yet, the main reason behind the movie’s lack of funding was a much different and, arguably, more controversial one.
The Crying Game follows a group of IRA volunteers in Northern Ireland who capture Jody (Forest Whitaker), a black British soldier, ransoming him for the release of one of their own. In the three days that Jody is kept captive, he and IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea) develop a close bond, with Fergus becoming increasingly more sympathetic towards him. Jody tells Fergus about his life, the Irishman helps the British soldier pee, feeds him and takes off the hood placed over his head so that he can eat and breathe freely, the two share a laugh. Ultimately, Jody tells Fergus the animal fable about the scorpion and the frog, so as to point out that although malice may very well be in the other IRA members’ nature, it is certainly not in Fergus’. Jody sees Fergus for the kind and decent human being that he is and asks of him to look up his girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson) after the execution. And just as we are beginning to think that the central plot of Jordan’s enthralling psychological thriller is the evolving friendship between two human beings who happen to be on opposing sides, whereby one is destined to become the other’s executioner, the screenwriter/director pulls a one-eighty on us. After a somewhat sudden turn of events, Fergus finds himself in London, seeking out Jody’s mysterious and alluring girlfriend. But what he does not expect is that he is going to fall for her. And what he does not know is that falling for her is not the only unexpected aspect of their blossoming relationship.
When The Crying Game ultimately hit theaters in Ireland and the UK in October 1992, it was a far cry from a throbbing success. In fact, it failed miserably, which was something Jordan attributed to the movie’s political undertones, its humanizing portrayal of an IRA member in particular, as well as its racial theme, what with depictions of interracial relationships still being mostly excluded from mainstream cinema. But to everyone’s surprise, it ended up becoming a sleeper hit in the United States, grossing over $60 million at the box office. This cascading interest was reportedly the result of the Americans’ lack of knowledge regarding British-Irish politics on the one hand and the film’s advertising campaign on the other, whereby audiences were asked not to reveal the movie’s big twist, while critics rushed to write lengthy reviews, patting themselves on the back for abstaining from spoilers. And although I personally never reveal game-changing plot points in my texts, no matter how iconic or well-known the movies in question are, I am purposefully making an exception for The Crying Game. This is, after all, not a review, but rather a factual essay that aims to examine the movie’s significance. And without the presence of that crucial piece of information, the brilliance, complexity and cultural importance of Jordan’s cinematic masterpiece could not be done justice. Because the aforementioned main reason why it was so hard to get financing in the first place, was The Crying Game’s portrayal of gender and sexuality.
When we begin watching The Crying Game, we are under the impression that what we are witnessing is only a tale of comradery and humanity against the backdrop of political antagonism. What we are not prepared for, is for it to actually be a story about love, its enormous power and its wonderous fluidity. As Fergus will find out in the film’s famous scene that revolves around full-frontal nudity, Dil is biologically male. In actor Stephen Rea’s words: “It wasn’t shocking to do. I’m sure everybody that does love scenes tells you: All you’re thinking about is the camera position. So it looks pretty shocking in the movie but it wasn’t shocking to do. The shock for me was when Neil Jordan—before I’d even read the script—I had dinner with him and he said, ‘Do you want to do this movie?’ And he explained the whole story to me, and then says, ‘And then they go back to her apartment and she undresses and she’s a guy.’ I immediately said, ‘I’ll do it,’ because I was aware of what the impact of it was. But it was quite daring at the time. I must say, I don’t think I’d ever seen a penis on a screen before.” This twist was indeed a daring narrative route to take in the early 90s, when being transgender or doing drag were not widely depicted themes in mainstream media. And although Jordan’s movie was a small independent one, its commercial success propelled it into public discourse, enabling it to become a queer classic. Yet, some contemporary viewers criticize the way Fergus’s reaction to the big reveal was handled, calling it hurtful, damaging and transphobic. And while his reaction is all those things, it is also exceptionally realistic—and movies must be viewed in the context of the time period they were made in. Taking precisely this context into consideration, Fergus’s character arc is nothing short of a miracle.
After his initial intense reaction to a revelation that was not even remotely on his radar, Fergus apologizes and allows himself to swim in life’s ambiguous waters, without trying to define, minimize or dismiss himself, Dil or their relationship. What is palpable throughout Jordan’s film is just how much the former IRA volunteer cares for Dil and what lengths he is willing to go to so as to ensure her safety. This journey he embarks on is something Jordan communicates to us in as few words as possible. Identity, sexual or otherwise, therefore becomes not a concept meant to be discussed or established, but rather a fluctuating truth that is simply lived. Every nuance of feeling that Fergus experiences, he conveys through his actions, which serves as a true testament to his character. And his nature. For as Jody had told him, being a decent human being is an intrinsic part of who he is. So, it could very well be argued that Fergus’ progression was not so much a transformation into something entirely new, as it was the uncovering of what had always formed the very core of his being. It is a wonder to behold just how quickly Fergus embraces that which has thus far been unknown to him, owns up to his mistake and seeks to make amends. He follows his feelings and, although he is reluctant to have a sexual relationship with Dil, he manages to prove his love for her over and over again—not for the sake of proving it, but for the purpose of keeping her quite literally alive and well. As Jordan stated: “I like stories where people don’t know who and what they are. I suppose The Crying Game is probably the best example of that. The central character thinks he’s one thing, and he’s one series of things. By the end of the movie he’s called every facet of what he thought he was into question. I don’t think people fully understand themselves, and I like to make movies about characters who realize they don’t fully understand themselves.”
Dil is beautiful and soft-spoken, vulnerable and incredibly self-accepting, deeply loved by not one, but two men who see and value her for the perfection that she is, without trying to turn her into something she is not. One of them makes her his final thought and seeks to ensure that she is taken care of, and the other sacrifices his freedom so that she could have hers. She is played beautifully by gay then-newcomer Jaye Davidson who became the first British person of color to receive an Academy Award nomination, the first black actor to receive a nomination for a debut film performance, as well as the youngest black actor to receive a nomination. But finding the perfect Dil was in no way an easy process and was also one of the reasons why it was difficult for the movie to get financing. There were several funding offers from the United States but they did not pan out because Jordan declined to cast a woman. The funders were skeptical of the fact that a man could pass as a woman, but Jordan would not budge. Even Stanley Kubrick told him that finding a black male actor to play one such role would not be possible. But thanks to the premiere party of director Derek Jarman’s movie Edward II, that male performer was found. In Davidson’s own words: “Do you know who the director Derek Jarman is? I was at the wrap party for Edward II, and I was very drunk. Someone said, ‘Oh, are you an actor?’ I said no. They said, ‘Would you like to go out for a film?’ And I said no and staggered off drunk. I was so drunk that I didn’t remember it happening. But the person I was with gave them my number, and then I got a phone call.” And even though Davidson had never acted before and only ever starred in Roland Emmerich’s 1994 science fiction film Stargate after that, his performance as Dil is still remembered as a hypnotic and deeply vulnerable one.
Apart from Davidson’s Best Supporting Actor nomination, Jordan won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the movie was nominated in four other categories: Best Actor for Rea, Best Director for Jordan, Best Film Editing for Kant Pan and Best Picture. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film and was named the 26th-greatest British film of all time in 1999 by the British Film Institute. The Crying Game was more than just another project for Jordan—according to him, he was, “thrilled to just be making something I believed in”. Just as he had done with his movie Mona Lisa and would later do with Breakfast on Pluto (2005), a dramedy about a transgender woman brilliantly played by Cillian Murphy, Jordan named The Crying Game after a song. The 1964 pop hit sung by Dave Berry, written and composed by Geoff Stephens, was covered by Boy George in 1992 and both versions were used as the movie’s theme. Much like the song itself, Jordan’s wonderfully written and deeply humane film managed to stand the test of time. After the movie’s BFI screening in 2017 celebrating its 25th anniversary, Stephen Rea said: “I hadn’t watched it in 24 years. I hadn’t seen Jaye since the Oscars. I was far enough away from it that I wasn’t obsessed with my performance or anything like that. I’ll be honest. I said to Neil afterwards: ‘Neil, it’s a masterpiece.’ In terms of the structure, the way he shot it, and the humanity of it, especially given what was going on politically. I’ve done 10 films with Neil now, and this is far and away the best, I think.” All that remains to be said is: truer words have never been spoken.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Neil Jordan’s screenplay for The Crying Game [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Writer and director Neil Jordan and actors Miranda Richardson and Stephen Rea discuss the challenging themes confronted in their film "The Crying Game."
Forest Whitaker "The Crying Game" 11/22/92 - Bobbie Wygant Archive
In conversation with The Crying Game cast: 'Gene Hackman was in love with Dil' | BFI