2010s, Drama, Irish cinema, Religious

Calvary (2013)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh

By Roderick Heath

John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”
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Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.
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The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.
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Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?
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Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.
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McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.
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Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.
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Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.
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Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.
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Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.
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Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.
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McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.
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The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.

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1980s, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, Irish cinema

The Company of Wolves (1984)

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Director: Neil Jordan

By Roderick Heath

“What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.”

—Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves” in The Bloody Chamber

Former poet and novelist Neil Jordan had one film under his belt, 1982’s Angel, when he attempted to adapt for the screen several werewolf-themed stories from British novelist Angela Carter’s acclaimed collection of retold fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. His and Carter’s resulting screenplay for The Company of Wolves took some cues from Carter’s own radio adaptation and stands as something of a last gasp for the gothic horror movie, as well as an intelligent and original cross-breeding of genre motifs with something altogether more surreal and adroitly evocative. Inspired by the look of old Hammer and Roger Corman films, Jordan interpolated a more knowing, explicably symbolic, almost postmodern approach to the genre. The result is one of the most interesting and intelligent of ‘80s films of the fantastic, but also an underachieving work that doesn’t quite live up to its boundless potential.

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Carter’s method with her stories was to interrogate the psychosexual codes in gothic fiction and fairytales and reinterpret them in altogether more cogently sensualised, darkly tangled, and evocative forms. The story “The Company of Wolves” transmutes Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” into a fable of burgeoning sexuality in which the wolf is insatiable male sexuality incarnate and the girl becomes master of her own desire. Jordan’s adaptation combined this story with other tales from the collection, adopting a narrative strategy like a Chinese puzzle-box. There is a framing story of a contemporary teenage girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), from a bourgeois Thatcherite family comprising her father (David Warner) and mother (Tusse Silberg) fretting about her self-isolating angst, and her older sister Alice (Georgia Slowe) abusing her for using her lipstick. Rosaleen has locked herself in her bedroom, Alice’s lipstick still on her mouth, as she suffers through the (hinted) travails of her first period. She sleeps restlessly, plunging into a dark dreamland where her bedroom transmutes into a dark, snarled forest through which Alice runs, pursued by wolves who bring her down and kill her.

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In this dreamscape, Rosaleen’s parents are peasants in a small forest village that mourns Alice’s death. Rosaleen’s willful, wisdom-spitting Granny (Angela Lansbury) warns her to learn the moral of Alice’s death: always stick to the forest paths. Granny proceeds to educate her in other aspects of woodland lore: never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, and run like hell if she sees a man standing naked amongst the trees, for werewolves always take their clothes off before transforming. Granny knits a bright red shawl for Rosaleen whilst telling her anecdotes of werewolf lore. In one story, a young village woman (Kathryn Pogson) married a tinker (Stephen Rea) who excused himself from their wedding night and never came back. He returned a year later, after she had remarried, and, enraged by this betrayal, began to transmute into his wolf form. Fortunately, her second husband (Jim Carter) arrived in time to cleave his head off, and then beat her for letting him in.

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Rosaleen, pursued by a homely, but passionate lad of the village (Shane Johnstone), begins to take up her Granny’s mantle as a storyteller with an edge of a seer, conjuring stories that may come from within her mind and yet also seem somehow linked to a hidden reality about her. Her tales include one about a witch (Dawn Archibald) who, impregnated and then abandoned by her noble lover (Richard Morant), walks into his wedding party and transforms the guests into wolves, and, later, offersa tale about a lonely wolf-girl who crawls out of the village’s well and is protected by the local priest (Graham Crowden) before returning to the netherworld. Meanwhile, the village is terrorised by animal attacks, and the men arrange a trap that successfully lures a wolf, which they kill, but when Rosaleen’s father brings the paw he cut off back as a trophy, he finds it has turned into a human hand. One day when making the trek to Granny’s, Rosaleen encounters a rakish, impudent aristocratic hunter (Micha Bergese), who taunts her with his ability to navigate the forest with a compass and bets her a kiss he can beat her to Granny’s. Bad luck for Granny that he wins his bet.

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Most folk tales such as Carter was revising combine pungent metaphors for familiar physical and psychological phenomenon with a simple, pointed moral and message. As such, they were modes of education, of transmitting cautionary lessons and artful fright to keep the kids close to home and hearth. This purpose is thoroughly refracted through an acerbic modern eye in Carter’s stories and Jordan’s film, evoking the way premodern cultures sustained a body of lore—particularly feminine lore—through traditions and intergenerational story-sharing. Unless she wants to fall victim to the wolf in man, sticking to the well-worn path, both morally and physically, through the tangled thickets of the dark, nightmare-hiding wood is the firm rule Rosaleen must follow. Rosaleen’s mother, however, after copulating with her husband, tells Rosaleen that if there’s an animal in man, there’s one to meet it in women; not unexpectedly, there’s a chill distance between Granny and her daughter that Rosaleen has to decode as a difference in generational understandings. Rosaleen then becomes a bridge, a synthesiser, deducing new meanings and lessons through her own understanding. Where Granny offers warnings and rules, Rosaleen offers parables of justice and redemption.

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Jordan’s stylisation both pays homage to the cinematic traditions of the gothic film, but also yearns to dig far deeper into the history of the genre, to before it had been mostly detached from the folk heritage. The imagery blurs firm demarcations between genres. As Rosaleen’s dreaming takes over the narrative at the outset, objects in her room, like her dolls and toys, become grotesquely oversized and begin moving as the edges of the room blur into a forest realm; then the process reverses at the end. Jordan offers up some startling sequences, particularly in the anecdote of the wedding party, where the foppish guests, resplendent in wigs and gowns, explode their clothes with claws and hair and snouts and dash off into the woods in howling anguish, leaving the witch to bow to the party’s menservants, who applaud her and break out the champagne: it’s an almost perfectly distilled scene. The werewolf transformations are similarly bizarre spins on what had already become a familiar special-effect art after The Howling (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981): when Rea’s aggrieved husband transforms, he peels off his skin in a gruesomely powerful vision of self-consuming rage, revealing the bloody musculature of the wolf within, and later, when the Hunter transforms, a wolf’s snout springs fully formed out from his mouth.

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The Company of Wolves is certainly no standard werewolf film, yet it stands as a strange cousin to the same year’s more popular A Nightmare on Elm Street. Like Wes Craven’s film, it is built out of dreams within dreams, offering literalised figurations for the terrors of teenagers inheriting the loaded lore of their elders, becoming aware of the corrosive aberrations of adulthood when the certitudes of given reality suddenly give way and terrifying paradoxes become apparent: both films end with monsters exploding out of dreams and into the lives of their pubescent heroines. These films each represent a brief, but promising moment when the horror genre was aware of its own subliminal nature in a fashion that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of the expressionists. There’s also wit in the sequence in which Granny recounts the anecdote of how most werewolves are created when the bastard sons of priests meet the Devil, who gives them an unction that transforms them: in the version Jordan offers, Beelzebub is played by Terence Stamp (and Rosaleen is his blonde chauffeur), and he comes rolling up to one such young man in a 1920s car (Jordan had first tried to get Andy Warhol). And yet this touch reeks of a joke surrealism that’s against the grain of what the project is attempting.

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Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why Carter’s writings appealed to Jordan, whose other early work sported a light frosting of the surreal: the motifs in Mona Lisa (1986) and The Miracle (1990) of lost children, hazy sexuality, and questing fathers; the reality-bending outlook of the young psycho in The Butcher Boy (1997); the changelings of The Crying Game (1993) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005). And the visual flourishes Jordan brought to such works reflect an artistic temperament with one foot planted in reality and the other in the metamorphic realm of magic-realism. Jordan brings a distinct sensibility to the tale, particularly in designating the wolf-husband of the first legend a “traveling man,” a tinker familiar from the Irish landscape, not specified in Carter’s story, lending parochial familiarity with the kinds of prejudices that can be encoded in such mythology. That story ends with the unforgettable image of the young man’s head, sliced from his lupine body, bobbing in a pail of milk: maternal sustenance, death, innocence, and villainy all churned together.

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And yet Jordan, who was still learning his cinematic craft at the time, fails to fully capture that mythic perception here, and more problematically, can’t come to grips with the potent sensuality Carter was able to offer in her precise prose. The recreation of the set-bound atmosphere of classic horror movies is lovingly precise in its flagrant artifice, courtesy of production designer Anton Furst, pointing forward, in its way, to Tim Burton’s less layered, but spiritually similar takes on the folk-tale and gothic traditions in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Big Fish (2002) and Corpse Bride (2005): indeed, Furst is most famous for his work on Burton’s Batman (1989). Whilst the structure of The Company of Wolves does not pretend to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the various interrelated stories do comment on each other, the final impression is more of disjointedness rather than dream-logic. Unlike a film very similar in its essence, Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Jordan didn’t know enough about movie-making then to fragment his visual narrative successfully into a trancelike indistinctness, and the result is a film both gorgeous to look at yet both curiously literal-minded and fussily indirect.

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Take the misjudged moment when the Hunter kills Granny, her severed head a mere plaster façade that shatters against the wall, a rather pointless flourish, especially because in the story, the old woman’s desiccated bones rattle under the bed whilst the girl and her animal lover consummate a dark desire, a grotesque but canny reduction to a fine point of how new life springs from and finally ignores the old. Jordan seems somewhat afraid of the deeper recesses to be found in the material. The fact that he cast barely pubescent actress Patterson as Rosaleen necessitated his excising the eruptive sexuality that Carter evoked in the final few lines of her story before her heroine went to sleep wrapped in the wolf’s paws: “She will lay his fearful head on her laps and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage wedding ceremony.” Jordan’s touch feels far too precious for such stuff, and, in his wimpier edition, Rosaleen merely turns into a wolf, too, and runs into the forest with her hirsute beau when the villagers track them down. Where the film needs finally to achieve galvanising fantasy revelry, it settles for a potted pretension.

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The Company of Wolves doesn’t quite work as adaptation and fails to fully resolve as an individual film. But it’s a long way from being a dismissable or inessential work: scenes from it stick in the memory like few films of the past 30 years. It’s certainly the best of Jordan’s several flirtations with the genre, including his failed ghost comedy High Spirits (1988), the psych-thriller In Dreams (1999), and especially his murky blockbuster adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), which likewise portrayed a taunting, fey male overlord’s bizarre relationship with a prematurely wise girl. The Company of Wolves is still one of the most intellectually dextrous and least veiled evocations of a folk-mythological past in English-language cinema, and a fascinating by-product of the British horror tradition. As Rosaleen learns in the final driving moments, changelings can awaken from a dream but can’t always forget what they see in themselves.

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2000s, Drama, Irish cinema

The Good Thief (2002)

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Director/Screenwriter: Neil Jordan

By Roderick Heath

One of the most pleasant surprises of the decade’s films thus far, the almost completely ignored and wonderful The Good Thief, should not have been such a surprise. Neil Jordan long has walked the line between artistic zeal and commercial responsibility, making personal films in regular alternation with potboilers and blockbusters and, in the process, racking up one of the stranger resumes around. In between those films that get big attention, like Cannes Palme D’Or Winner Mona Lisa (1986), multiple Oscar nominee The Crying Game (1993), and blockbuster Interview with the Vampire (1994), he has produced a lot of films that get little attention. Some, like High Spirits (1988), We’re No Angels (1990), and In Dreams (1999), are tripe. But some under-regarded gems of his career include The Miracle (1991), a softer, teenage-romance variation on the image/reality dynamic in Mona Lisa and The Crying Game; his bizarre take on Hammer Horror and classic fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984); and Michael Collins, the 1995 film about an Irish nationalist hero.

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The Good Thief is based on Jean-Pierre Melville’s thriller Bob le Flambeur (1955), itself an adaptation of a novel by Auguste Le Breton, who also provided the basis for Jules Dassin’s mighty Rififi (1955). The Good Thief made no impact, probably because at first glance, it seemed like another of the run of heist flicks at the time, whilst cineastes would not glance twice at a remake: Jonathan Demme’s similarly colourful and witty revision of Charade, The Truth About Charlie (2002) from the same year also fell by the wayside. But Jordan’s take stands as a candidate for the best English-language noir film of the decade. <Jordan’s remoulding of the material is far from another Hollywood cash-in on vintage product, but one of the warmest crime films imaginable, a condensation of many of Jordan’s pet themes, and a dense and loving mash note to film noir, the French Riviera, old-school tough guy romance, modern art, rock ’n roll, and everything else beautiful and sexy and a bit seamy.

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Bob Montagnard (Nick Nolte) is a half-French, half-American gambler, heist artist, and heroin addict. Permanently exiled from New York (“I can’t go back there no more” is the limit of his comment), Bob is a legendary denizen of the Nice underworld, beloved of everybody, including Roger (Tcheky Karyo), a detective who keeps a watchful eye on Bob’s dealings. He’s at the absolute end of his tether, cursed with a losing streak, shooting up in the toilet of a sleazy sex and gambling dive, in the act of which he is seen by Anna (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a fawnish 17-year-old refugee with legs up to her armpits. She’s from Bosnia (“Is that what it’s called now?”) and has been set up and paid for by Raoul (Gérard Darmon), owner of said dive, who’s got her passport for keeps. Bob suggests that Roger arrest her now and skip all the misery she’s about to go through. “All I see is a girl on a motorcycle.” Roger sighs as she and Raoul ride off together.

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Bob, who seems like the definition of loser despite his fancy talk, picks a fight with Raoul, and gets the crap beaten out of him—and a chance to lift Anna’s passport from Raoul. Later, when Raoul attacks him, Bob deftly lets him fall under the hooves of a horse. It’s the first sign we have of Bob’s genius, a genius he’s been deliberately suppressing “since my last five convictions.” Nadia is now free, but homeless. Bob takes her into his apartment; ironically, she’s far more interested in him than he is in her. He passes her along to Paolo (Saïd Taghmaoui), another stray Bob has adopted. Paolo idol-worships Bob and imitates his style. When Bob blows the last of his cash on a losing horse, his friend Remi (Marc Lavoine) presents him with his last shot—a heist of priceless Impressionist and Modern paintings that hang on the walls of a newly renovated Monte Carlo casino—or seem to; in fact, the real paintings are kept in a vault in a nearby manor house, guarded by a formidable security system.

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Bob decisively throws away his drug paraphernalia and handcuffs himself to his bed to get clean, with orders to Anna and Paolo not to free him even if he begs. Anna enjoys taunting Bob as, in withdrawal, he pleads with her for the key to the cuffs—the first time she’s ever had someone in her power. When he rises from his bed and from addiction, Bob strides out into the world, ready to take it on. With so many great schemes undone by informers, Bob’s new idea is to cultivate a snitch—specifically, drug-dealing Algerian miscreant Said (Ouassini Embarek), a snout for Roger who Bob once prevented from blowing Roger’s head off. The idea is to put out word on the jungle drums that their intent is to rob the casino the night before the Grand Prix, to distract from their actual target. The instigator of this job is the designer of the security system, Vlad, a Russian technowhiz played in a delightful piece of casting, by the great Croat director Emir Kusturica. A guitar-playing longhair who also designs laser shows for concerts (“Fuck rock ’n roll! You heist guys are easier to deal with.”), he has a family in St. Petersburg who want to get out of there. He’s determined to rip off his former employers to make that happen.

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Jordan throws in more of his choice oddball supporting characters, including one of his traditional gender-bending touches, Philippa (Sarah Bridges), a transsexual weight lifter and con who professes herself “the same bad-ass motherfucker…except for spiders.” There’s also Albert and Bertram (Mark and Michael Polish, also directors), Irish twins who pretend to be one person working on the casino’s security team. They have their own plan to rob the casino’s vault, and, having made Bob and his crew, try to interest them in their plan. The most disturbing is Tony Angel (Ralph Fiennes in a ferocious cameo), a seedy art dealer to whom Bob sells his prized portrait by Picasso of his last wife Jacqueline Roque, which, according to legend, he acquired thanks to a bet made with Pablo over a bullfight.

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Jordan’s eye for evoking lowlifes and seedy dens is impeccable, particularly in his use of scenes bathed in conflicting primary colors that resemble Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, which instantly references Mona Lisa. Bob, and Jordan, are entwined by their desire to fill their lives with beauty, and pay tribute to a host of cultural influences. The Good Thief breaks up the cinematic flow by using freeze-frames constantly at the end of shots and scenes, as if trying to catch a cubist texture, and liberal use of lens and editing table effects, thus making the film’s visuals pay homage to Impressionism, Modernism, and Pop Art. Likewise, the soundtrack bustles with ’60s French pop, Franco-Arabic rap, big-beat dance anthems. In fact, the film is keyed by two songs, the splendidly mopey Leonard Cohen dirge “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and a Bono version of “That’s Life.” In one hilarious scene of Roger trailing through the hills above the Riviera, the soundtrack blares with Johnny Halliday’s cool-ass version of “Black Is Black”; when Roger crashes, Bob helps him, asking with dry insouciance, “Why are the French so bad at rock ’n’ roll? We’ve given you Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and what do you give back? Johnny fucking Halliday!” Unlike in Mona Lisa, Jordan’s milieu is actually sexy, especially the buzzing nightclub where Anna gets a job dancing and waiting tables. Kukhianidze is radiant as the throaty-voiced ingénue who’s at least 10 years older than her body and delivers her own epitaph in her inimitable monotone: “I must be made of gold, everyone wants a piece of me!”

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Anna acts as Bob’s lucky charm, but sends the males who compete for her around the bend. Said feeds her crack cocaine to extract details of the heist from her, Raoul hovers around looking for a chance at revenge, and Paolo, when he finds out about this, over-reacts and shoots Said when he’s talking with Roger, forcing Bob to order him to drive to Italy. Even worse, Tony Angel and a thug set upon Bob and Anna; the painting’s a fake. “But it’s a good fake,” Bob assures him. “What I do to both your faces will definitely be cubist!”? Angel promises if he’s not repaid in several days. Everything appears headed for disaster, and indeed the robbery is a comedy of errors, as Philippa cannot bring herself to turn off a gas main because the wheel’s encrusted with spider webs. Meanwhile, Bob and Anna arrange to be visible all through the heist by playing at the casino tables. “What you’re going to see is fake glamour, real money, and a lot of bad plastic surgery,” Bob promises her. It all builds to a glorious finale I won’t spoil here.

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The pleasure and greatness of The Good Thief is its relative relaxedness; it has the same grizzled friendliness, put-on skill, and insouciant charm as its hero. Jordan isn’t pushing for either high moralism or fat-free thrills. It possesses a cultural resonance and combination of high class and true grit, and the emotional weight that comes from both, that the Ocean’s films never approached. Jordan could not care less either about the mechanics of the crime or for the morality of our naked desire for Bob to win through. This is not the same as saying the film has no moral centre, far from it; it’s simply that it’s on the side of the losers, the professionals, and the wits. The title is expostulated when Bob explains gaining inspiration from the story of the saved thief who hung beside Jesus on the cross. “Bob doesn’t want money, he just wants what money can get him,” Anna wisely states. Bob wants to fill his life with colour and glory, but can’t compete with mega-rich corporations that own the artworks he wants to own and run the house game. In the end, Bob succeeds not through a scam but by walking in the front door and looking grim fate right in the eye. The film’s one moment of real violence, when Paolo shoots Said, is to Bob a violation, and Paolo gets ejected for the lapse. But Paolo later gets a reward, because of extenuating circumstances; he was trying to protect Anna, to grow up, to live up to his hero. The film has the same respect for codes of human interaction and inter-reliance of a classic Howard Hawks film. Jordan maintains a balancing act between threatening melancholy and ebullience that is triumphant.

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For Nolte, it’s a tour de force. Long a great actor without great films to work in, Nolte hit his stride with his amazing lead in Paul Schrader’s Affliction and here delivers a performance that combines the steely existential quality of Sterling Hayden in The Killing and the light touch of Cary Grant when he slummed. He goes to town with Jordan’s dialogue, which is quotable right through and often betrays Jordan’s roots as a poet. The lingo in the film is as pretty and barbed as a recitation of Bukowski, Amiri Baraka, or Tom Waits. The only problem is that with the jangling soundtrack and heavy mix of mumbles and accents, you might have trouble hearing it. But the true greatness of the film is the love it shows for its characters; whilst not shying away from what ails them, it loves them all the way to the finishing line.

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