b. February 25, 1950, Sligo, Ireland
With each successive outing, Neil Jordan–without doubt the most interesting filmmaker to emerge thus far from Ireland–astonishes the viewer with the eclectic, catholic range of his interests. From Angel (1982) to The Borgias (2011-2012) and the forthcoming Byzantium (2012), Jordan’s peregrinations through genre often loosen or immolate the boundaries between categories. Jordan is truly idiosyncratic, always experimenting with form, unafraid to change styles from film to film. He is a master at creating moods and situations which can be sensed, but which are too complex to be grasped immediately. Jordan is a filmmaker who loves both the image, and the use of language that expresses and transforms meaning. He has no trepidations about making bold, outré gestures in his work. Jordan is easily one of the most poetic, intelligent and gifted of contemporary filmmakers.
As much as Jordan experiments with form and generic convention, his work tends to circulate around repeated themes. Among them are: a fascination with storytelling, and how the stories are told by various modes of performance; the quest for identity and wholeness; meditations on innocence; permutations of the family unit; violence and its attendant psychic and physical damage; impossible love and erotic tension; the dark and irrational aspects of the human soul; and characters who are, in some way, haunted by loss. His films continually embrace the deepest question one can ask: What does it mean to be human? A signal aspect of Jordan’s work is his approach to character. He does not have a strong investment in probing the characters’ psychology in the traditional sense; he is most interested in their immediate feelings, those moments of revelation and sensation so beloved by the Romantics. One knows very little about Jordan’s characters, their backstories are minimal, at best; we enter their lives in medias res. And yet, one cannot call these films apsychological (in the way one might consider the work of Michelangelo Antonioni), because there is access to the emotional sensibilities and temperature of the characters. Characters have definition and amplitude; feelings are experienced and enacted; emotional journeys occur that result in major alterations of a character’s life. Jordan’s main concern is in something I would call ‘sensual meaning’, that which is provisional and fleeting, and made up of the melding of image, sound, performance, narrative and dialogue. One intuits not only from character traits, but from sensory materials. Although Jordan’s films may be read through the filter of theoretical, historical and cultural perspectives, it is really the experiential component that most interests the filmmaker. He has repeatedly said that abstract thought holds no interest for him. I think of Jordan as a postmodern romantic, postmodern in that he destabilises boundaries, appropriates a variety of artistic referents and transfuses genres, romantic in his embrace of perception, intuition and sensation. Perhaps most importantly, Jordan’s work is embedded within a mythopoeic sensibility; it is the crucial overarching feature of his work.
The director does not want to diminish the irreducible mystery that subtends human behaviour and being-in-the-world; Jordan wishes to set forth the kaleidoscopic array of feeling that make the human condition so enigmatic. My approach here is to explore the films within the specific context of aesthetic, psychological and intellectual ideas that illuminate Jordan’s work. It is not my objective to theorise about the films, but to view them within a history of ideas. I will not offer a complete reading of each film, but rather focus on one or several particular patterns or areas of significance that colour the director’s individual films.
It is important to underscore that a work on Neil Jordan would be impossible without contextualising him as a filmmaker who came into adulthood just as the troubles resurfaced in Ireland in the late 60s. Angel is a way of comprehending the violence of The Troubles and the specifics of sectarian hostilities. The director utilises the political turmoil to interrogate the journey of a lone individual who gradually loses his connection not only with the external world, but also with his selfhood, as he becomes a self-appointed executioner, avenging the death of a girl he barely knew. The central question is: What happens to a human being once he becomes enmeshed in violence? Angel is the first time Jordan uses the considerable skills of Stephen Rea, who will become a fixture in the director’s films. Jordan manifests a strong personal vision in his freshman film, but also his great indebtedness to European art cinema, particularly of the New German Cinema and Italian films. There is a good deal of experimentation with off-screen sound, colour and genre. Genre is something Jordan will play with throughout his career, most often juggling several genres in the same film.
Unlike the sacred and national origins treated in myth and legend, another form of storytelling, fairy tales, are a narrative form that engages with personal and social origins, providing a rich body of cultural imagery and history for a filmmaker concerned with the peregrinations of identity. Moreover, the instability of fairy tales, historically contingent, forever reworked by the new teller allows for the kind of artistic manipulation which serves the director’s examinations of the power of narrative and myth. Rather than following the paths of archetypal and structural absolutes or overlaying moral and social codes in his use of fairy tales, Jordan builds upon the disruptive elements of this durable narrative form.
Marina Warner writes of how ‘all the wonders that create the atmosphere of fairy tales disrupt the apprehensible world in order to open spaces for dreaming alternatives ‘… The dimension of wonder creates a huge theatre of possibility in the stories: anything can happen.’ (1) While the sense of enchantment that often accompanies ruptures in identity and narrative allows for rearrangements of the real, for Jordan, it frequently entails a fundamental loss, the impossibility of healing what really hurts. Jordan captures the threat of change and the uncertainty of desire implicit in fairy tales, as well as the often catastrophic effects of growing up.
Jordan’s use of the fairy tale is not a correction or parody of their supposedly outdated values; rather, he investigates what it means to listen to fairy tales, what it means to trust narrative and what it means to follow their paths. His films often show the messy results of fairy tales, the awkward ways in which we interact with our shared store of narratives and the complex interrelation of past and future that make fairy tales such vivid material for impassioned pastiche.
Neil Jordan wrote a piece, “Wolves at the Door”, in which he interpolates passages from Angela Carter’s short story with the same title as the film, The Company of Wolves (1985). His admiration for Carter is tangible as well as his pleasure in their collaboration. In “Wolves at the Door,” the authors discuss the technical aspects of the film, made with animatronic figures well before the advent of CGI effects. Jordan’s enchantment with the work of the great set designer, the late Anton Furst who worked on Aliens (1986) and Batman (1989) is fulsome.
Mona Lisa (1986), Jordan’s next film, was shot in what he calls “his made-up version of London.” The director had lived there for a number of years, working as a schoolteacher (the profession of his father), an experience he claims to have disliked intensely. Because Mona Lisa starred Bob Hoskins as the lead character, it was Jordan’s first internationally screened film. Mona Lisa can best be called a nouveau noir, in which the seediness of London – Soho and King’s Cross, particularly – are intertwined with an interracial love story and a lesbian sub-plot. It is the filmmaker’s first attempt to deal with alterative sexuality in his films, a theme that will attain great importance with the release of The Crying Game (1992).
Jordan’s first foray into the maws of Hollywood studio filmmaking arrived with High Spirits (1988). This infelicitous first endeavour culminated with the film being taken out of the director’s hands by the studio. They wanted a juvenile comedy, while Jordan was interested in a light-hearted rendering of some of the more clichéd and ante-diluvia, but funny versions of Auld Ireland. He next worked as a director-for-hire on We’re No Angels (1989), from a David Mamet screenplay. It was not an altogether happy experience for Jordan, referring to the film’s co-lead actor Sean Penn as a “brooding personality,” the diplomatic use of the word “brooding” is obviously a coded designation for “difficult.” More generally, about the Hollywood industry he would comment, “It’s important to me to work with comparative freedom. I wouldn’t want to become a Hollywood director. I wouldn’t want to be stuck there.”
Jordan returned to Dublin after his less than sanguine encounter with Hollywood, and to a much more personal, small film made on his home turf. The theme of mother/son incest, a topic rarely explored in film or literature (with Oedipus as the most obvious counter-example), is paramount in The Miracle (1991). The film provides an outstanding example of the way in which Jordan prefers to work close to the edge. His two leads were unknowns, and casting non-actors is a recurrent pattern in Jordan’s films. Beverly D’Angelo, Jordan’s paramour at the time, was cast as the mother figure, and the film luxuriates in her presence.
Another literary model to which Jordan’s work is bound is English Romanticism. Of great concern is the transcendence of the material world to a greater spiritual reality. The triad of subject, mind and spirit speaks to the emphasis on the world as experienced through the senses and perceptions of the individual (much like the ‘sensual meaning’ of Jordan’s films invoked earlier). Relating to the Anima Mundi is the correlation of the individual mind with the mind of the absolute. This was the very essence of imagination to the Romantics, and is a quintessential belief of the origin and value of art for Jordan; it is the filmmaker’s quest to interact imaginatively with the external world. A crucial subject for the Romantics as for Jordan, is the idyllic time of childhood, but an idyll that is short-lived and tinged with the sense of what is lost over the course of a human life. The paradisal child often assumes a perverse and ironic dimension for Jordan, a rendition of childhood that bespeaks the Romantic agony and despair at the fallen world. A bond is made between childhood and imagination on the one hand and reason on the other. Jordan’s obsession with father/son relationships, and questions of origin and identity surface in the title story of his volume of short stories published in 1976, Night in Tunisia, and are pervasively interwoven throughout the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
The unholy trinity of sin, pleasure and death attains a powerful presence in Jordan’s work. In the fallen world, anxiety is provoked over the existence of God, particularly as expressed by Satan and the fallen angels, and such figures haunt Jordan’s films. Romantic tropes such as diasporic figures and exile, mourning and melancholy, dreams and the exotic find their way into The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire (1994), amongst other films.
Jordan taps into the darker side of Romanticism, which shades off into the Gothic. The Gothic is a movement of excess; it revolves around transgression and anxiety about the limits and boundaries of society and culture. Passion and excitement are the overriding effects of the Gothic, reason is untamed, ‘social propriety and moral laws’ are subject to ambivalence and uncertainty. (2) The Gothic proffers a threat through a confusion of supernatural and natural forces; imaginative excesses and delusions; religious and human evil; mental disintegration and spiritual corruption. (3) In the 19th century, what was externalised previously as terror and literal menace, now becomes – as we approach the founding of the human science of psychology – horror, an internalised, disturbed psychic state. Sexual conflicts abound, and madness is a reflection of the despair, guilt, and angst that destabilises all boundaries. The sublime mystery of the Romantics becomes the uncanny for the Gothic. Once we reach the 20th century the site of horror is located in institutions such as psychiatric hospitals and the criminal underworld.
This description could very well act as a précis for Neil Jordan’s filmography. Jordan is the interrogator par excellence of the boundaries of a desacralised world. The limits of rationality; individual freedom; sexual identity, are, among other concepts, subject to Jordan’s scrutiny. The abrogation of convention is tied to the disintegration of social adhesion that characterises the millennial era.
Jordan’s films often contain the iconic Gothic image of the labyrinth, ‘a place of all forms of excessive, irrational, and passionate behaviour,… also the site in which the absence or loss of reason, sobriety, decency and morality is displayed in full horror.’ (4) The dread woods of The Company of Wolves, the underbelly of London in Mona Lisa; the subterranean vampire sarcophygi in Interview; the drowned city and the tangled hospital corridors of In Dreams (1999), are all maze-like constructions that position Jordan’s creations firmly within the Gothic arena.
The End of the Affair (1999) is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel and one cannot help but be engaged by the film’s spiritual elements, an aspect that often hovers over each of Jordan’s films, but is here articulated in a profound and provocative way. The actors convey a subtle minimalism, certainly light years away from the performance style in Interview with the Vampire, making manifest Jordan’s need to continually experiment with style and content.
The Good Thief (2003) is a film largely about Nick Nolte. Without Nolte’s presence, the film would be an exercise in style, as Jordan takes some risks with film’s formal coordinates. The Good Thief is concerned with a junkie gambler with six prison sentences behind him, who still hopes for redemption. Although there are allusions to Christian symbology, this is essentially a film about masculinity and vulnerability, kindness and malefic manipulation, isolation and belonging. The film’s stylistic expressiveness is most apparent in the flamboyant use of a hyperkinetic camera of Chris Menges, which throws us headlong into a wild underworld of sex, drugs, Leonard Cohen and world music. One of the film’s central conceits is that the characters communicate largely through the mode of (mostly) phantasmatic storytelling, the more exotic and unbelievable, the better.
Breakfast on Pluto (2005), like The Butcher Boy (1998), is once again about the perplexing structure of the family. The episodic film deals with transvestism in Ireland of the late 1960s to the first few years of the 1970s, just as inhibitions were being tossed out the window. Kitten (Cillian Murphy), the protagonist, is unabashedly transgendered, and must suffer for what was then considered (in Ireland certainly) a sin against God. The resilient Kitten has an overriding ambition in life – to become a middle-class hausfrau, pushing a baby’s pram around town. Jordan has never shied away from material about the homoerotic –transvestites, transsexuals, bisexuals, and even straight people appear with regularity in his films and fiction. Breakfast on Pluto ends on upbeat note, however fanciful this may appear, making it vitally different to Jordan’s other films that end with breakdown (Angel) ambiguity (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire) or death (Michael Collins, In Dreams, The End of the Affair). At a deeper level, Breakfast on Pluto concerns Kitten’s search for wholeness and healing, and it is in many ways one of Jordan’s most hopeful films.
Jordan went on to another large-scale, Hollywood financed film, The Brave One (2007), because, as he says, “Jodie Foster sent me the script, and I read it, and there was something very vulgar and compelling about the basic drive of the script. And, I just liked the unholy dynamic of it. The film rekindles the idea of impossible love, as the main character, Erica (Foster,) a vigilante murderer is attracted to the police officer (Terrence Howard) pursuing her. Jordan says: “I do love that that about it, and that’s one of the things that drew me to the project. These two characters who know each other so well, there’s so much distance between them, and there has to be so much distance between them. So I thought that was fascinating.”
The Brave One opens with a sweet romantic scene between Erica and her fiancée, David (Naveen Andrews.) They are then brutally attacked in Central Park ─ David dies and Erica, though comatose, lives, but barely. Erica’s lack of affect is contrasted by her outbursts of violence, thus accommodating Jordan’s penchant for probing the effects of trauma on identity, most often coupled with a sense of loss. The film grants the teller of the tale a wide berth for the creative deployment of fairy tales. The director chooses to focus on the more troubled constituents of this particular narrative form. Jordan’s fairy tales often mine the territory of crushing social events as found in all of his films from Angel onward. There is a feeling that his characters are often unable to return to normality in order to heal the source of their wounds. Jordan’s storytelling arises from popular culture, and the vigilante film, like the horror film, expresses the social anxieties of the times, and can be seen as a contemporaneous articulation of the fairy tale—but one which is registered in the key of apocalypticism.
In The Brave One the misrule of the fairy tale becomes millenarial thought, so prevalent in the post 9/11 world. The agents and events in the Book of Revelations, the notion of the “last days” have always had a strong pull on Western intellect and imagination. One of the most important components and influences of eschatological thinking is polarity ─ the Manichean forces of light and dark with no middle-ground. Creative energies are generated by the tension between Good and Evil. Millenarialism is generally preoccupied with violence as something that will destroy historical evil. It is swift and absolute like Erica’s transgressive, vengeance-fuelled exterminations. Visionary poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey in England, and Hölderlin in Germany embraced the French Revolution as a crisis that inspired new hope, but also darkened the imagination. (5) The dark Romanticism at the heart of The Brave One is another manifestation of the director’s links to that cultural and historical movement.
In The Brave One the city is filmed almost always at night. There is an atmosphere that is strongly reminiscent of the way in which London is filmed in Mona Lisa. One might consider this film as the progeny of the vigilante film, e.g. Death Wish (1974), but the oneiric quality of the photography by Phillipe Rousselot, with whom Jordan has collaborated four times, aligns itself more with the stylized surreal than with the sort of realistic drama of the iconic Michael Winner-Charles Bronson film. It is, like Mona Lisa, a rendering of a nightmarish, mythopoeic re-imagining of a city.
Erica’s violence becomes a mission to rid the city of pestilential, nocturnal creatures, and certainly, Taxi Driver (1976) can be seen as an über-text for The Brave One. (It is of course, ironic, intentionally or not, that Jodie Foster played a lost waif to Harvey Keitel’s pimp in the Martin Scorsese film) The narrative patterning of The Brave One reflects its mythic origin, and certainly Erica is a mythological heroine of a sort. She is bound and determined to endure the horror of her emotional voyage of discovery, even while her quest mobilizes the most monstrous side of her being. In some ways, The Brave One is a deeply tragic film. Not tragic in the Aristototelian sense, but a more contemporary form of tragedy. It is not about the fall of a great, flawed individual, but about the loss of human feeling. There is no sense of redemption at the end of The Brave One, perhaps Jordan’s most grim work.
Once again, after filming a Hollywood feature, Jordan moved back to a more intimate arena. The film, Ondine (2009,) was made virtually in his backyard, near his country home in County Cork. I was struck by the obvious connection to Celtic myth and folklore, as well as the connection with W.B. Yeats, another native of Jordan’s Sligo birthplace. Jordan said:
“…the reason I talked about Yeats with regard to Ondine is because Yeats collected fairy tales. Early on in his career he had a book called The Irish Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. And, I thought, it is an endemic part of the Irish imagination that seems to have fallen into disarray or disuse recently. He published that collection when he was about 19 or 20. One of these fairy tales he collected was called the Lady of Gollerus, and it was about a fisherman who pulls a woman from the sea, he marries her, and she goes back to the sea, eventually.”
When probed about the fairy tale connection, Jordan talked about the non-rational aspect as well as the universality that appealed to him. This specific story of a woman pulled out of the sea by a recovering alcoholic fisherman, played beautifully by Colin Farrell, exerted a pull for the director. He said:
“When I began to look at Ondine, I said okay, the Irish version of that is the selkie, and the one that everybody knows is the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. There is a French version of it, which is actually called Ondine. And, I believe there’s a Filipino version of it too. So it’s one of these universal connections, and I began to write this little fantasy that I thought would be lovely, and charming, and it would turn into this movie script, and I made it.” (6)
Although Ondine received lukewarm reviews, it was a personal, small project that Jordan seeks after his forays into Hollywood.
For Jordan’s next venture, he turned to a story he had been trying to film for years. In 2007 he was in the midst of scouting locations in Italy for the film, which would be the story of the Borgias, the Renaissance family reminiscent of the dynasty portrayed in The Godfather films. Numerous actors were scheduled to sign on for the film, but at some point, financing fell through. Jordan then struck a deal with Showtime, and The Borgias became a series in 2011. Jordan is responsible for writing the scripts, and he directed the first two episodes before turning this task over to Simon Cellan Jones, John Maybury and Jeremy Podewsa. It was a first for Jordan, to have his work filmed by another director, and it discomfited him somewhat. But with a project on such a large scale, it may have been a necessity.
When asked about the attraction of the subject, Jordan said:
“To me the whole series is about power. And the interplay of power and religion, that’s what I wanted to examine, that’s what attracted me to it, the reason I made it. Machiavelli’s The Prince really hooked me into it. The point of view I want to take in my whole series is, what people do to get power, what it does to them once they have gotten it, and how they have to disguise their efforts to get it.”
I was struck by one line in particular about “the silence of God as your witness,” which addresses the loneliness of Jeremy Irons, the historical figure of Rodrigo Borgia who becomes the Pope. There is a distinct look of discomfort on Irons’ face as the crown is placed on his head. Jordan concurs, commenting that: “I wanted him to be overawed suddenly by the thing he had grasped, I wanted him to face this, to have this terrible sense of aloneness, which is painful, because there’s nobody else he can talk to except this imagined God who doesn’t talk to him really.”
As one might expect in a Showtime series, The Borgias has a large quota of sex and violence. Jordan made an interesting comment about the sexual content:
“…sex must have been much more fun in those days, because it was so forbidden, and so bound up with spiritual yearning. Those Catholics had the great thing of confession didn’t they, the great institution. They could confess, they can sin as much as they want and confess the next day and be washed clean. I mean…that’s one of the reasons the subject interested me so much is because of the Catholic Church. When I grew up in Ireland as a Catholic, that specific mindset I find absolutely fascinating. And, the way, one can have a world full of such guilt, and then such possibility of redemption at the same time.”
Jordan’s next project was another novel, Mistaken, published in 2011 to very good reviews, particularly (but not unexpectedly) in The Irish Times. During this time he was working on Byzantium (2012) which features a mother/daughter team of vampires. Both the novel and the film mark a return to vampire lore.
Although Jordan’s films may be read through the filter of theoretical, historical and cultural perspectives, it is really the experiential component that most interests the filmmaker. He has repeatedly said that abstract thought holds no interest for him. I think of Jordan as a postmodern romantic, postmodern in that he destabilizes boundaries, appropriates a variety of artistic referents and transfuses genres, romantic in his embrace of perception, intuition and sensation. Most importantly, Jordan’s work is embedded within the mythopoeic tradition of William Blake and W.B. Yeats.
- Warner, M. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London: Chatto and Windus, 1994, xvi.
- Botting, F. The Gothic. London: Routledge, 2001, p3.
- Botting, p.2
- Botting, p. 83
- Abrams, M.H. “Apocalypse: Theme and Romantic Variations,” in The Correspondent Breeze. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1984.
- There is a medieval version of the story in France called “Mélusine” by Jean d’Arras from the 13th century.
Company of Wolves (1985)
Mona Lisa (1986)
High Spirits (1988)
We’re No Angels (1989)
The Miracle (1991)
The Crying Game (1992)
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Michael Collins (1996)
The Butcher Boy (1998)
In Dreams (1999)
The End of the Affair (1999)
The Good Thief (2003)
Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
The Brave One (2007)
The Borgias (2011-2012) [TV series]
Boozer, J. “Bending Phallic Patriarchy in The Crying Game,” Journal of
Popular Film and Television 22, 4, Winter, 1995,172-79.
Jordan, N. Michael Collins: Screenplay and Film Diary, New York: Plume Books, 1996.
McIlroy, B. “Interview with Neil Jordan,” World Cinema 4. Ireland and London: Flicks, 1984,108-118.
Pramaggiore, M. Neil Jordan (Contemporary Film Directors), Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Rockett, E. Neil Jordan: Exploring Boundaries, The Liffey Press, 2003.
Thompson, S. ‘Miracle Man’. Irish Stage and Screen, 3, (1990/91), 7-8.
Zucker, C. The Cinema of Neil Jordan: Dark Carnival, London: Wallflower, 2008.
Zucker, C. (ed). Neil Jordan: Interviews. Jackson MS: University of Mississippi Press, forthcoming 2013.
The Official Neil Jordan Website – www.neiljordan.com
Official website containing biography, filmography, novels, screenplays and links.