Monday, December 1, 2008

Identity Politics in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out and Neil Jordan's The Crying Game

Neil Jordan's Academy Award for the screenplay to The Crying Game (1992), while leading to the film's worldwide success and general increased recognition for Irish film around the world, has contributed to (if not directly responsible for) the reactivation of the Irish Film Board and the increased government funding for Irish film.[1] This increased international recognition for the film constituting an achievement that was beneficial to both Irish film and Ireland, one must wonder why an Irish film would have had to prove its worth (whatever worth winning an Academy award is) outside of Ireland before it was recognized inside of it. Financial considerations aside, one must turn to the representation of the Irish identity in film and the perception of this identity (both in Ireland and globally) to better understand the issue. Would this representation of the Irish identity require some sort of "validation" on the international "theatre of war" before it can be accepted at home? Perhaps it would help to observe how the subject of the Irish identity is explored in the filmic portrayals of the struggle for this identity. As Benedict Anderson notes in his definition of the nation, it is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,[2] as such, the struggle to define its limits and achieve its sovereignty might aid to understand the nation's identity. This struggle provides the canvas for Jordan's The Crying Game, operating within the framework of the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland to establish said identity. Similarly, Carol Reed's film noir Odd Man Out (1947) acts as a British counterpart of this portrayal, providing a (relatively balanced prima facie) look at the subject from "the other side" in the early post-war era. With an analysis of these films, I will show that both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game construct the Irish nation through the displacement of the Northern Irish struggle onto a humanistic plane that transcends the politics which form the backdrop of their respective narratives.

First I will explore the way that the 'troubles' are represented in the two films and how this representation works in terms of the subject's political nature versus its apolitical representation. Following, I will consider the representation and importance of identity - how is this concept used at both the national and the personal levels in the films. Finally, I shall look at how these elements converge in constructing the idea of an Irish national identity and the meaning of having this identity constructed in such a way.

Starting with the representation of the 'troubles' in Odd Man Out, one can consider the fact that the choice of aesthetic (film noir) constitutes a depoliticization of the (highly politicized) subject, which in turn constitutes a politicization in itself. As John Hill points out, this decontextualization reinforces "pre-existing views of the 'troubles' as largely inexplicable"[3]. Hill further goes to point out that this decontextualization leads to a level of abstraction in which socio-historical determinants are evacuated, becoming irrelevant, and ultimately all the political problems are resolved at the level of humanism.[4] As such, the problems due to the 'troubles' in Odd Man Out only become moral and political problems at the level of specifics, but are essentially meaningless in abstract.[5] This idea is further explored in Cullingford's reading of the piece from Corinthians that Fergus recites to Jody in The Crying Game, about being a child and thinking as a child and then putting away childish things when becoming a man.[6] Cullingford makes the link with both the original quote from Reed's Odd Man Out [7] which gives it its "weight", but also with the original context from St-Paul's celebration of charity, deeming the quote an "intertextual reminder that the commitment to the cause of Ireland must be accompanied by the love towards one's fellow men"[8]. This love, according to the apostle, is more important than the willingness to become a martyr[9], and if we substitute the IRA for the early church[10] we can clearly see the humanist message that this quote takes in the context of a film about the 'troubles'. Harlan Kennedy proposes that The Crying Game "rhymes the nation's Troubles with the troubles of all of us" and "explores identity and frontier not just in the map of nations but in the human psyche"[11]. As such, the film's "politics of self and a humanist agenda… replace old orthodoxies and liberate the individual from the claims of nationalism"[12]. This preference for a humanist view of the 'troubles' in both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game then point not necessarily to a depoliticization of the 'troubles' but rather to a displacement of the political nature of the subject to a nature more concerned with the politics of identity and self within the nation as opposed to the politics of the nation among other nations.

Hill points out that while it may seem as though Odd Man Out evades politics, it in fact displaces politics to a realm of de-socialized and de-historicized humanity which renders the cause and acts of its protagonist as fatal irrationalisms[13] (as opposed to more meaningful causes and acts driven by socio-historical issues). While it might be true that Odd Man Out works in this manner, it does not necessarily refute the validity of the political struggle but merely points to another facet of this struggle found deeper than the one observed on the surface through the 'troubles'. This struggle, which works on this displaced realm of humanity, is the struggle for an identity deeper than the political one defined through the struggle in the 'troubles'. Kearney explores the subject of the IRA's strategy of arousing sympathy through failure[14], which goes against the earlier quote from St-Paul that seems to oppose this sort of martyrdom[15]. Further, taking into account the parallel made between the IRA and the early church, it would seem that this struggle for identity on the humanist level is in conflict with not only the IRA's strategy but even with the church doctrine itself. After all, the Christ was himself a martyr - does this mean that the struggle for a true Irish identity is a struggle against Christ? In a way - yes. While not in a literal way, this struggle is "fought" against the very imagined community which gave birth to the IRA. In The Crying Game, Brain Neve points to Fergus' loyalty to Dil as being "a questioning of all our imagined communities and the identities on which they are based"[16]. This questioning is further confirmed by Jordan himself, deeming his film as an exploration of the Irish people's (and the IRA's) identification of themselves and their ability to change. He reaches the conclusion that when the 'masks' that people use to exclusively identify themselves (as Catholic, Protestant, Unionist or Nationalist) are stripped away, we begin to see that there is a human underneath[17]. This places the film, and indeed the Irish identity represented in it, in a place where it is able to define this identity not through the struggle for political freedom, but through a presentation of an identity free of this struggle despite its existence. What it manages to say is that despite there being political turmoil due to the 'troubles', our ability to assert our identity not through this turmoil, is the very thing that identifies us as a nation. As Barton points out, The Crying Game is best read as reflecting the assertion of the validity of identity politics over state politics[18].

Acknowledging the assertion of identity politics over state politics, however, does not, by itself, define a nation. We have seen that both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game opt for a humanist representation of the 'troubles' which in turn is used to convey the subject of identity politics. What is left now is to see how this is used in defining the Irish nation. It is perhaps here, that Odd Man Out and The Crying Game diverge in readings and drive for alternate definitions of (Northern) Ireland. In his reading of Odd Man Out, Pettit points to the "tragic narrative, the reluctant, passive IRA man and the over-riding fatalism associated with the film's stylistic preferences" as neatly coinciding with the British view of Anglo-Irish political history[19]. He further goes to suggest that the film is "imaginatively prefiguring and morally underpinning the legislative incorporation of Northern Ireland into the British state"[20]. While this would seem to be a rather extreme reading of the film, especially considering its relatively favourable reception in Northern Ireland by both Unionists[21] and Nationalists[22] alike, one cannot completely dismiss it, especially considering it was a British production. The Crying Game, however, is not a British production (despite taking place primarily in Britain, as opposed to Odd Man Out, which happens exclusively in Belfast), and while it is not a pro-IRA film in any sense of the word, it does manage to convey a more cohesive Irish identity than Odd Man Out does. In this identity, the protagonist is not defined through his belonging or rejection of the political ideals as defined by the IRA, but rather by his attempt to break free from the necessity to make a choice. Fergus' identity is explored (by us and by himself) both through his departure from the IRA and through his need to deal with his identity in view of his unexpected relationship with Dil. He needs to re-evaluate his values and by extension his own identity (both as Irish and as heterosexual). His desertion of Ireland for a life in exile as well as his reluctant acceptance of Dil's gender, points not only to his ability to change (as discussed by Jordan[23]) but also to his acceptance of an identity that does not fall into the strict rules imposed by being part of the IRA or not, but rather by his own personal will and beliefs as a free human. The fact that this freedom allows him to make the choice of going to prison can be seen as Fergus' redemption for Jody's fate, but it takes further significance as he makes this choice to avoid Dil's imprisonment - an act which, as discussed before, points to the questioning of the imagined community that Fergus comes from[24]. In this sense, the film "no longer 'represents' the process of national and gendered disorder but rather comes to stand in place of it" - a fact that makes Kirkland deem The Crying Game as "an exemplary instance of a long-hoped-for ideal Irish Cinema"[25]. According to Kirkland's reading of Kennedy, this ideal Irish cinema is one which insists that "humanity can coexist with history myth and reality" and that "personal destiny can be both example and weapon against the obdurate imperatives of political destiny"[26].

In conclusion, we have seen the way that the IRA and the 'troubles' are represented in both Odd Man Out and The Crying Game. We have observed how, despite the apparent differences in both representations, both drive to a humanist reading of the 'troubles' - a reading that displaces the political reality of the Northern Irish conflict to a personal one that leads to a struggle for identity. We have further seen that this identity and the struggle for it, in both films, constitutes a different kind of politics than the ones forming the backdrop of the films' respective narratives. Finally, we have seen that the National identity is defined, in both films but primarily in The Crying Game, through this identity searching and the ability to change. This search for identity, in face of the one imposed by one's political views of the 'troubles' and perhaps despite them, is ultimately what constitutes the identity of contemporary Northern Ireland. In this respect, Rockett's irony of Irish life, which he links to colonialism, regarding Irish talent requiring the endorsement of large metropolitan centers before being recognized at home, works on an even higher level than the one of cinematic recognition[27]. In terms of international recognition, the 'troubles' and the IRA are (unfortunately) one of the most famous and most associated-with elements of Northern Ireland on the international front. But ironically, it is this very element of military conflict recognized by the world that prompts a re-evaluation and questioning of the identity politics within Ireland that culminates in the eventual (yet ever-changing) idea which now constitutes the national identity of (Northern) Ireland.

[1] Kevin Rockett. "Irish Cinema: The National in the International." Cinéaste 24, no. 2-3 (Spring-Summer 1999), 24.

[2] Benedict Anderson, "Introduction." Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991), 6.

[3] John Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland, (London: BFI, 2006), 126

[4] John Hill, "Representing Violence: The British Cinema and Ireland." Ireland's Terrorist Dilemma, Yonah Alexander and Alan O'Day, eds., (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986), 129.

[5] Ibid., 129.

[6] The Crying Game. Directed by Neil Jordan, 1992, (00'33'32")

[7] Odd Man Out, Directed by Carol Reed, 1947, (1'40'19")

[8] Elizabeth Cullingford, Ireland's Others: Ethnicity and Gender in Irish Literature and Popular Culture, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 61

[9] Ibid., 60

[10] Ibid., 61

[11] Harlan Kennedy, "Shamrocks and Shillelaghs: Idyll and Ideology in Irish Cinema." Film Comment 30, no. 3 (May 1994), 40

[12] Ruth Barton, "The Deflowering of Irish Cinema: Gender in Contemporary Irish Cinema." Irish National Cinema, ( New York: Routledge, 2004), 128.

[13] Hill, "Representing Violence", 129.

[14] Richard Kearney, "The IRA's Strategy of Failure." The Crane Bag, M. Hederman and Richard Kearney, eds., (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1982), 700-702

[15] Cullingford, Ireland's Others, 60.

[16] Brian Neve, "Film and Northern Ireland: beyond 'the troubles'" European Identity in Cinema, Wendy Ellen Everett, (Bristol, UK; Portland, OR, USA: Intellect Books, 2005), 95

[17] Mario Falsetto, Personal Visions: Conversations with independent film-makers, (London: Constable, 1999), 172-173.

[18] Barton, "The Deflowering of Irish Cinema", 128

[19] Lance Pettit, Screening Ireland: Film and television representation, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 63

[20] Ibid., 64.

[21] Hill, Cinema and Northern Ireland, 127.

[22] Ibid., 128.

[23] Falsetto, Personal Visions, 172-173

[24] Neve, "Film and Northern Ireland", 95.

[25] Richard Kirkland, Identity Parades: Northern Irish Culture and Dissident Subjects, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002), 72.

[26] Kennedy, "Shamrocks and Shillelaghs", 40/

[27] Rockett, "Irish Cinema", 23.


Anderson, Benedict. "Introduction." In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1-7. New York: Verso, 1991.

Barton, Ruth. "The Deflowering of Irish Cinema: Gender in Contemporary Irish Cinema." In Irish National Cinema, 113-129. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Cullingford, Elizabeth. Ireland's Others: Ethnicity and Gender in Irish Literature and Popular Culture. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Falsetto, Mario. Personal Visions: Conversations with independent film-makers. London: Constable, 1999.

Hill, John. Cinema and Northern Ireland. London: BFI, 2006.

Hill, John. "Representing Violence: The British Cinema and Ireland." In Ireland's Terrorist Dilemma, by Yonah Alexander and Alan O'Day, 123-144. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986.

The Crying Game. Directed by Neil Jordan. 1992.

Kearney, Richard. "The IRA's Strategy of Failure." In The Crane Bag, edited by M. Hederman and Richard Kearney, 700-702. Dublin: Wolfhound, 1982.

Kennedy, Harlan. "Shamrocks and Shillelaghs: Idyll and Ideology in Irish Cinema." Film Comment 30, no. 3 (May 1994): 24-40.

Kirkland, Richard. Identity Parades: Northern Irish Culture and Dissident Subjects. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002.

McLoone, Martin. Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: BFI, 2000.

Neve, Brian. "Film and Northern Ireland: beyond 'the troubles'" In European Identity in Cinema, by Wendy Ellen Everett, 87-96. Bristol, UK; Portland, OR, USA: Intellect Books, 2005.

Pettitt, Lance. Screening Ireland: Film and television representation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Odd Man Out. Directed by Carol Reed. 1947.

Rockett, Kevin. "Irish Cinema: The National in the International." Cinéaste 24, no. 2-3 (Spring-Summer 1999): 23-25.

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