Do I need to give a SPOILER WARNING for The Crying Game at this point? I think most people know by now the big plot twist that occurs mid-movie.
If you don’t, proceed at your own discretion:
The past couple of movie reviews I’ve posted (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Aguirre, the Wrath of God) are for films I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Both held up remarkably well to my memory of them. The same is true about my current topic, Neil Jordan’s 1992 film The Crying Game. It’s been at least twenty years since I’ve viewed it.
This one also holds up, even though the film has at times been berated as resorting to a gimmicky plot twist. In fact, it was a flop during its initial run in the UK. It wasn’t until American critics, such as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, gave it positive reviews that it became an indie hit on both sides of the pond. Later it would go on to win many awards.
The story of a British soldier named Jody (Forest Whitaker) stationed in Northern Ireland kidnapped by IRA members, on the surface it could seem a mundane political thriller. It is much, much more than that.
Enticed by Jude (Miranda Richardson) at a fair, Jody is captured by Peter (Adrian Dunbar) and Fergus (Stephen Rea). They plan to hold him in exchange for one of their own held captive by the British. If their man is not released within three days, they will shoot Jody.
Over the three days Jody and Fergus develop a relationship. Fergus shows Jody more kindness than the other kidnappers. Jody pleads with Fergus to look up his girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson) and tell her he was thinking of her at the end.
Fergus is given the job of executing Jody when the exchange does not take place. Jody manages to break away, but is run over and killed by a tank when British soldiers arrive to rescue him.
Knowing he will be in trouble for not killing Jody before the arrival of the troops, Fergus escapes to London and begins a new life as Jimmy. Over time he can’t help himself from looking for Dil. A hairdresser who frequents a bar called the Metro, Dil takes Fergus’ interest as flirting. They soon begin a relationship, even though Dil says she’s still in mourning for her soldier, Jody.
When they are about to go to bed for the first time, Jimmy is stunned to find out Dil is a man. Sickened by the discovery, his reaction hurts Dil profoundly, who thought he knew the truth all along.
In spite of this, Fergus can’t stop caring about Dil. Jude reenters his life and tells him he must take part in an assassination to make up for the disaster that happened in Ireland. She also threatens Dil. Fergus, terrified for Dil, does everything he can to protect her.
Like I said, on the surface this is a fairly standard political thriller. In fact, Neil Jordan (who wrote the screenplay under the title “The Soldier’s Wife”) originally conceived Dil as a woman. When another film came out with a similar plot, he shelved it. He revisited it later and decided to change Dil into a man.
There’s a lot more to the story than just the politics or the gender twist. It’s not just Dil (who is gendered as “she” and “her” throughout the film) who is not as she initially seems. Fergus is a man who can’t help but feel empathy for his captive. Jody tells him the story The Scorpion and the Frog, where a scorpion persuades a frog to swim him across a river. He stings him halfway across. When the frog asks why the scorpion has killed both of them he replies, “I can’t help it, it’s my nature.”
It’s Fergus’ capacity for kindness and empathy that makes him a terrible terrorist but a good human being. Dil falls deeply in love with him. When she finds out his part in Jody’s death, she initially wants to kill him but can’t do it. “He won’t let me,” she says, referring to Jody.
Jordan plays on other gender expectations with Jude’s character. She, not Dil, turns out to be the film’s femme fatale. (It’s interesting that for the American marketing campaign, Richardson, and not Stephen Rea or Jaye Davidson, is on the movie’s poster. Perhaps a deliberate attempt to keep people from guessing the twist.)
Fergus’ reason for being an IRA volunteer is startlingly simple: “You shouldn’t be here,” he tells Jody. Jordan acknowledges racism (Jody complains he is treated horribly in Ireland because he is black) as well as the irony of a black man enforcing British colonialism.
Backers of the film wanted Jordan to cast a woman as Dil (sigh, the more things change the more they stay that same). He did audition transgender and transsexual actors (some who appear in scenes at the Metro). Jaye Davidson, who is gay but not transgender (he was recommended to Jordan by director Derek Jarman) gives a memorable and complex performance as Dil. In spite of an Academy Award nomination for the film, he quickly retired from acting because he felt as both a gay and black man, his opportunities would be limited. A sad loss for the industry, in my opinion.
One of the things that’s stunning to this day about The Crying Game is the deep romanticism that runs through the story. Love is not limited by gender or sexuality. Fergus and Dil both remain who they are yet genuinely love each other. I for one still find it deeply moving.