The Crying Game

The Crying Game

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

With one of the most famous twists in film history, this initially modest little production has become a cause celebre, and it's now impossible to talk about it without spoilers. I was privileged to be among those who reviewed it back when it came out, one of the very few who caught the full force of that twist without knowing what was coming. As such, it seems my experience of the film has been very different from others'.

I am going to go into those spoilers here, so if you don't want to know, better stop reading. The film tells the story of Fergus (Stephen Rea), and IRA man whose cell capture a British soldier. The operation ought to be straightforward, but the soldier (Forest Whitaker, before the extent of his talent had been widely recognised) is friendly, charismatic, and determined to make Fergus see him as a human being. Against all the odds, a friendship is formed. When the soldier dies, Fergus flees to London and looks up the beautiful girlfriend whose photograph the soldier kept in his pocket - the girlfriend he promised to look after.

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Thus far, we're on familiar territory. Neil Jordan was well known for his work on IRA themes, challenging the official line that terrorists could not be seen as human beings, and he often worked with Rea. The personable actor is very effective here, as always, at engaging with the audience and making them feel sympathy for his plight. But this story takes a twist when Fergus discovers that the soldier's girlfriend Dil, with whom he has already had a sexual encounter, is a pre-operative (or non-operative) transsexual.

Fergus' response to his discovery is shock, disgust and panic. This seems understandable in a culture where homosexuality was so strongly taboo and was perceived as so challenging to masculinity - in Fergus' understanding, his whole identity is threatened. But from Dil's position, she's treated horribly by somebody she thought already knew. Dil has been accused of being a cliched example of the 'deceptive transsexual', a person using gender expression as a disguise for the purpose of seducing poor innocent heterosexuals, but a closer look at the film reveals that she's really much more complicated. By the point at which Fergus makes his discovery, the audience have already fallen in love with this beautiful, fragile woman, and in time Fergus too discovers that he has feelings that won't just go away. He may disavow any continuing sexual interest, but he protests rather too much, and the sacrifice he ultimately makes for Dil suggests a concern that goes way beyond anything he owed to her dead boyfriend.

Can it be that, ultimately, the details of Dil's body don't matter all that much? This seems to be what Jordan is trying to say. He went to great lengths to find a trans woman to play the part (most trans women in film and television are played by women with no trans background) and in so doing got to know a lot of people in the trans community. If the movie started out using Dil's situation as a gimmick, a publicity-generating device, it was already much more than that by the time filming began.

Inevitably, society wasn't ready for it. Davidson was insultingly nominated for a Best Actor Oscar (her performance isn't actually that impressive, but Hollywood seems convinced that the hardest thing in the world is to convince as a member of the 'opposite' sex, despite the fact that many trans people do it all the time). Many critics claimed that they could spot the twist coming a mile away (not the case in the screening I was in) because if Jordan had wanted to cast a 'normal' tall thin black actress he would surely otherwise have chosen Cathy Tyson, whom he'd worked with on Mona Lisa (the racism behind this statement is appalling, assuming there are so few black actresses looking for work). Ugly spoofs followed in the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, reinforcing the notion that the proper reaction to a trans person is disgust and abuse. Yet still Jordan's film stands out as a beacon of humanity, a look at how the world could be if we started treating people just as people. Of course, that's exactly what Fergus has to learn to do in turning his back on terrorism.

On other levels, The Crying Game works well - it's a solid thriller with wit and plenty of grit. Miranda Richardson is the only weak spot as a rather two-dimensional IRA woman bent on revenge ("I failed with her," Jordan told me, laughing). There are comedy moments from Jim Broadbent and Tony Slattery which now seem rather quaint but which are still entertaining. The soundtrack is appropriately haunting and Jordan makes characteristic use of bleak landscapes shot as if they were works of art, adding an intriguing air of romance to the run down housing estates and grim London streets against which the action takes place.

Although this film is familiar now, it's well worth taking a second look at it. As the years have passed and society has become less homophobic (although transphobia is still a huge problem, such that the average life expectancy for a transsexual, worldwide, is just 28), it can be seen in a different light. Once so far ahead of its time that it was judged almost entirely on 'the issues', it now emerges as a touching portrait of two lonely, displaced people reaching out to one another across the void.

Reviewed on: 15 May 2009
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An IRA man questions his ways after befriending a captured soldier, then flees to London and finds himself out of his depth in the soldier's world.
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