This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Mark Cunliffe’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I've always loved The Crying Game ever since I first saw it on Channel 4 sometime in the 90s. I watched it again only last year, and gave it a glowing 5 star review, but a recent review from Steve G gave me pause. Steve's review focused on what he perceived to be a problematic depiction of trans identity, or rather the phobic reactions towards it. Had my previous revisit last year been through rose tinted glasses? I consider myself an open minded, liberal person and a supporter of trans rights (I recently blocked a supposed comrade on Instagram after a heated debate in which she referred to the trans community as 'men in dresses' and expressed sympathy for arseholes like Graham Linehan, JK Rowling and various Mumsnet keyboard warriors) so maybe I needed to view The Crying Game with 2020 eyes?
I'd thoroughly recommend revisiting a film with an open mind and heightened senses. You become so attuned to every little detail that, a film you think you know inside out, can really surprise you. On viewing it again tonight, I became so aware of every little nuance, just waiting to be offended I guess, that a whole new reading of the film opened up to me. A reading I feel very foolish for not having noticed before because I suspect it is fairly obvious.
The Crying Game is, as Jody's joke about the scorpion and the frog (later retold by Fergus/Jimmy in the film's closing scene) will tell us, all about what is in our nature. IRA volunteer Fergus is tasked with minding Jody, a British squaddie, in the days leading up to his execution - an execution that Fergus himself will be chosen to perform. But Jody senses something in Fergus that arguably Fergus hasn't even considered about himself before; Jody sees that Fergus is a kind man. From that moment on, Fergus's opinion of himself changes. He becomes human again, shedding off the emotionless gunman image he had adopted for the republican cause. Of course you could argue that Jody will say anything to plant a seed of doubt in his captor's head that could grow large enough to save his own skin, but it's imperative to what will follow that Jody does indeed uncover something latent within Fergus - something that arguably isn't just a conscience. Could Jody actually coax out of Fergus some buried homosexual feelings? Consider some of the clues; we know of course that Jody is the partner of Dil and a regular at the gay/trans bar that Dil performs at in London. Jody admits to not really fancying Jude, who lured him into the trap with her ruthless sexual wiles. Initially, we might just think that's because Jody is with Dil, but is it that women really aren't his type at all? It's understandable why he would seek Jude's company for something other than the sexual attraction Jude and her fellow volunteers may be banking on; he's lonely in Northern Ireland, a place where he is confronted daily, not just because he is a British soldier, the symbol of the oppressor, but because he is a black British soldier. Indeed, he says to Fergus that Belfast is the one place where he's called a n*gger to his face. On a subliminal level too, there's also the fact that Jody is a very gender neutral name, certainly more so than Dil. Are Fergus's feelings really for Jody? When he arrives in London, under the alias of Jimmy, he is seen to get close to Dil, but when he orgasms in her flat, it is Jody he is thinking of, not her. Literally, right on the money shot itself, it's the image of Jody in his cricket whites that floods his thoughts. Indeed, his first words after he's cum are even concerning Jody. How had I not noticed this reading before?! Tellingly, I later searched online to confirm my new found theory and appreciation of the film and saw Stephen Rea refer to the first act as a 'seduction' between Jody and Fergus. It's therefore valid to consider Fergus is someone who has buried homosexual attraction in his life.
Of course all of this leads to Dil herself. Much has been made of The Crying Game's twist, and rightly so. The film is almost thirty years old and yet here I am, marking this review as containing spoilers - something I rarely do. Basically, to know the twist going in, is less fun. But, in the context of my rewatch, I simply have to discuss it. The crucial scene has been spoofed on at least two occasions, Ace Ventura and Naked Gun. The nature of spoofing means to heighten the truth of the scene for laughs. Unfortunately, these laughs are now somewhat offensive (just as the whole, 'don't give away the twist' marketing campaign from Miramax now feels in hindsight) but I don't think that the way Neil Jordan approaches the actual twist is in any way at all. I actually think the reveal is delicately handled and, in all likelihood, exactly how such a situation would play out. Fergus's revulsion at the sight of Dil's penis, the realisation that he was about to bed a transgender (not a term that was admittedly available in 1992) person is, as Kate Bornstein writes in the 1995 Book Gender Outlaw 'an admission of attraction', one which does not seek to condone his reaction but rather show how common it actually is. Once again, Fergus is having to come to terms with something that he has never really considered about himself.
What follows after the reveal is quite refreshing, even by today's standards. Fergus doesn't shun Dil, and his reproaches towards her are fleeting. Most notably, look at the scene in which he says "should've stayed a girl"; it's immediately met with Dil's "don't be cruel" and Fergus, realising he is being just that, accepts her chosen gender identity by replying "Be a good girl and go inside" before kissing her goodnight - an affirmation of their love or, at the very least, ongoing attraction. Rea's superb in these scenes, almost deadpan cool despite clearly processing a great deal internally. What stands out the most however is that their relationship scarcely changes, arguably because the film is about Fergus accepting his own sexuality.
Perhaps the sticking point to The Crying Game for modern audiences lies in the sequence where Fergus forces Dil to revert to being a man. The scene of Fergus cutting her hair is hard, knowing how important it is to Dil, but it is nothing less than pragmatic. Fergus cares so deeply for Dil that he wants her to go unnoticed by his former comrades and the only way to do that is to present her as something that she has long ago abandoned. I'm not about to say that this isn't problematic - especially as Jordan's screenplay insists Dil goes along with it because she thinks that presenting as a man will keep her 'Jimmy' by her side; yes, it's offensive to consider a straight cis white man writing a sequence in which a black transgender person gives up their feminine identity and life simply to keep her man - but, in my newly found context for the film, it's an interesting device as Fergus is essentially moulding Dil into the very image of Jody, the man who awakened something deep inside him that I now suspect was far more than simply a kindhearted conscience.
Ultimately, The Crying Game is of its time. Dil may accept blame for Fergus' reaction to her naked body, she may momentarily abandon her true nature with no questions asked to be with him, and the film may place its focus on how trans women impact upon notions of male sexuality, but it's unfair to view the film as a whole solely from today's perspective. Again, it's important to remember how under-represented and invisible trans issues were in 1992 and, with that in mind, what Jordan's film actually achieves - a relatively sympathetic depiction starring an actual trans actor who performs a character with her own strength, independence and agency, and which promises a happy ever after future - is remarkable and ought to be commended. That said, I am aware that,as a cis white male, I am not the best person to ask about whether a film is transphobic or not. All I can say is that I choose to acknowledge what this film does right over what it does wrong within the context of its time.
A little footnote too about the politics of the film. Much has been said about whether The Crying Game is pro or anti IRA. It's an argument that inevitably dominated the UK release, which unfortunately coincided with a revival of the campaign of mainland terrorism, though was of significantly less concern in the US, who were all about the film's sexual politics. It seems to me that US audiences, even today, have a very black and white view about the republican cause that means the IRA are forever viewed as noble freedom fighters rather than terrorists, whereas the truth of course is far more complex than that. The UK has a similarly black and white view, in that it's just considered terrorism. This black and white view from both countries also crucially ignores the character of Jody; a black British soldier who, as a victim of the British class system (cricket was the game of the streets back home in the West Indies, but is a "toff's game" in Britain) and racial prejudice, finds he has no recourse but to take up arms and defend the interests of a country that has little interest or respect for him. When Fergus challenges him that he shouldn't be here, ie in Ireland doing the work of the British Empire, he remarks "It's a job"; it's a common answer for many working class Britons who serve the crown for no other reason than to be in gainful employment, and was especially true in the recession hit '80s. It's a blinkered take, certainly in America, if they fail to sympathise with Jody, a man who has no political idealogy or desire to fight a fellow exploited and discriminated citizen. On the depiction of the IRA, for me personally, I don't have a problem that Adrian Dunbar and Miranda Richardson are depicted as zealots because, to be so committed to the cause, you simply have to be. The film is neither pro nor anti IRA, it is simply a film that suggests another way, indeed another life, is possible. The avatar of all that is of course Fergus who, as I've come to see with this watch, is much more than the stereotypical 'gunman with a conscience'. Ultimately, The Crying Game really is a film about what is in our nature, and it tolled the bell for change that would eventually come just a few short years later.