Neil Jordan Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Neil Jordan 1950–

(Full name Neil Patrick Jordan) Irish screenwriter, director, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Jordan's career through 1997.

Neil Jordan has been hailed as "one of Ireland's preeminent fiction writers," by Alex Raksin and others, but he is better known as a screenwriter and director of such acclaimed films as Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992). His work reflects his Irish heritage as he explores his country's politics and culture. His unique style combines lyricism and surrealistic images to subvert common notions about such topics as violence, gender, sex, and race.

Biographical Information

Jordan was born in 1950 in Sligo, Ireland, but grew up in Dublin. He studied English literature and history at University College in Dublin. He began writing at an early age and published his first short story collection, Night in Tunisia and Other Stories in 1976 while working in theater. The collection won the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize. Subsequently Jordan wrote for Irish television and the British Broadcasting Corporation. In addition he worked for director John Boorman, helping him on the final draft of Excalibur. Jordan then decided to tackle the film medium himself, writing the screenplay for and directing the film Angel (1982). He continued writing screenplays in addition to writing several novels, and went on to direct several of his own movies. His first critical success came with Mona Lisa, and in 1990 he directed We're No Angels, his first big-budget Hollywood movie. He enjoyed both commercial and critical success with The Crying Game, which won an Academy Award for best screenplay. Jordan has gone on to direct several other successful Hollywood features.

Major Works

Jordan's work often focuses on people who have gone astray. Angel deals with the political violence in Ireland. The film is set in Northern Ireland and tells the story of Danny, a saxophone player. After playing at a wedding reception, Danny takes a deaf-mute teenager, Annie, outside and makes love to her. While outside, the pair witness four men murder the manager of the band, whom they suspect has paid protection money to a rival paramilitary group. The men also kill Annie and blow up the ballroom. Danny seeks revenge and trades in his saxophone for a gun. He slowly descends into madness and violence as he tracks down the four murderers. Jordan never makes clear the political affiliations in the film; instead he shows how violence of any source causes men to lose their individual identity. Jordan's novel The Dream of a Beast (1983) is filled with imagery and follows a man as he travels through his dreams. The man and his community slowly transform, and the man finds himself identifying more with nature than with society. As he transforms into this "beast" he reverts back to a childlike consciousness. In the process he finds himself closer to his wife and daughter. Jordan's screenplay The Company of Wolves (1984) is based on Angela Carter's short story of the same name. The film is a version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, which takes the form of a young girl's dreams. The girl visits her grandmother who warns her that all men are wolves in disguise. The girl meets a handsome prince in the forest who turns out to be the wolf of the fairy tale. The film concludes with the girl herself turning into a wolf. The tale is a metaphor for the young girl's awakening sexuality as she encounters the predatory nature of male sexuality. We're No Angels is a film about two convicts serving life sentences in a hard-labor prison. They escape and pretend to be priests while on the run. The Miracle (1991) is a four-person character study of an Oedipal relationship between a mother and the son she gave up for adoption twenty years earlier. The Crying Game has been Jordan's most talked about and controversial film. It follows an ex-IRA soldier, Fergus, as he struggles to atone for the death of a British prisoner. He becomes involved in a relationship with the dead prisoner's girlfriend, who eventually reveals herself to be a man in the conclusion of the film. The film analyzes otherness and overturns common preconceptions about sex, gender, and race. Michael Collins (1996) tells the story of Irish Republican Army founder Michael Collins, and is based on the history and myth surrounding the real man.

Critical Reception

Reviewers often discuss the imagery and lyricism in Jordan's work. They also point out the multiple layers and symbolism common to Jordan's fiction and films. Marlaine Glicksman states that "Both his literature and films are like Chinese boxes: stories within a story, films within a film, dreams within a dream." Critics also discuss the place of myth in Jordan's work. In his analysis of Angel, Richard Kearney asserts: "While Jordan would seem to subscribe to the conviction that myths contain what is important about a race, he does not approach the mythical in terms of ancient legend or folklore, but in terms of contemporary lived experience." Jordan is well known for upsetting traditional conceptions about identity, especially in The Crying Game. The film sparked critical discussions surrounding the sexual and racial politics of the film. Some critics argued that the film failed to escape traditional conservative representations. Frann Michel states: "Where its disruptions are insufficient or excessive, the film [The Crying Game] implies a conservative politics at odds with the screenplay's apparent intentions." Most critics, however, praised Jordan for his attempt, and even Michel goes on to say "The Crying Game is visually, intellectually, and emotionally engaging. If the film falls short of the radical innovations it sometimes promises, it nonetheless offers profound dislocations of vision: the chance to try to see anew." David Lugowski agrees, stating: "What is original and special about The Crying Game is its execution, the mileage Jordan gets from the conventions he respects and those he upsets, and the complexity of its discourse on racial and gender issues."