The Crying Game has been reduced to a single scene in the public imagination. Fergus (Stephen Rea, it wouldn’t be a Neil Jordan film without Stephen Rea) is about to have sex with Dil (Jaye Davidson) for the first time, when it’s revealed – both to Fergus and the audience – that she is transgender. She takes off her robe and the camera tilts down her body to show a penis. Fergus’s reaction is, to say the least, not great: he hits her in his attempt to push her away, and he throws up in the bathroom. Dil meekly says she thought that he already knew.
If you know anything about The Crying Game, it’s this scene. It’s this twist. To some extent, that reputation was deliberately cultivated: after flopping in the UK, it became a hit in the US with a marketing campaign built around the twist. And in isolation, it makes The Crying Game sound like a relic, in a way I’m sure puts people off watching it. When critics revisit The Crying Game now, it’s mostly to measure its understanding of trans people against our modern sensibilities. It’s good to re-examine representation of trans characters from the past, obviously, but it can be reductive when historical transness is purely viewed through modern lenses. Mainstream understanding of trans people has transformed so quickly so recently that a film from 1992 sounds like an ancient artefact.
But The Crying Game is an incredibly rich, complex, and beautiful film. It has a deft touch for the nuances of gender and sexuality, but it’s about so, so much more than that. It’s a film about shifting identities whose own identity is in constant flux: it’s a thriller, a romance, something else entirely. And at its centre is a character whose identity is shifting: not Dil, but Fergus.
The first act of The Crying Game is a version of Frank O’Connor’s 1931 short story Guests of the Nation, transported to the Troubles in the 1990s. It focuses on the IRA holding an English soldier (Forest Whitaker) hostage, and the inevitably doomed friendship that is struck up between the soldier, Jody, and one of his captors, Fergus. Making Jody black instantly complicates the dynamic: he says he just joined the army for a job, and unfortunately got sent to “the only place in the world” where they call you the n-word to your face. It makes his anti-Irish racism – calling us paddies, or making sweeping claims about the nature of Fergus’s “people” – land completely differently than it would coming out of a white Englishman’s mouth. Jody’s a big cricket player: what is to Fergus (and most Irish people) a symbol of British colonialism, Jody grew up with as a “black man’s game.” (Fergus tells him hurling is better.)
The relationship between Fergus and Jody is fascinating. There’s the hostage and hostage-taker thing, and how Fergus is so clearly not cut out for the IRA, full of a too-nice-for-this warmth that echoes Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. And then there’s what grows between them, which critics consistently refer to as a friendship in a way that diminishes both its intimacy and its ambiguity. Jody is initially made to wear a hood so he won’t be able to identify them, but when he hasn’t moved for a long time, Jude (Miranda Richardson) removes the hood to check on him. He jumps forward, and even though they get him tied back up, he’s seen Fergus. The next morning, Fergus is assigned to watch him, and Jody says it’s ridiculous for him to wear the sweaty, uncomfortable hood when he’s seen his face.
“So, what do I look like?” Fergus asks.
“You’re the one about five ten. With the killer smile, and a baby face,” he says. “…And the brown eyes. You’re the handsome one.”
Fergus feeds him a square of chocolate. “Thank you, handsome,” Jody says.
It’s a risky move on Jody’s part, because it’s easy to imagine one of the IRA guys beating the shit of him for saying something queer. But it feels almost like he recognised something in Fergus, something Fergus likely does not yet recognise in himself. His smile – which the audience sees but Jody doesn’t – feels like butterflies-in-the-stomach incarnate. After checking with his superior, Peter, Fergus takes off Jody’s hood, and even though Jody says he was wrong and Fergus isn’t actually handsome at all, he says it in the most outrageously flirtatious way imaginable.
The hostage situation necessitates a physical intimacy that The Crying Game goes out of its way to dwell on. There are multiple scenes where Fergus feeds Jody because his hands are tied up. Physical closeness is emphasised by the camerawork: Fergus reaches into the inside pocket of Jody’s jacket because Jody wants to show him a picture in his wallet, and the camera dollies in on a Dutch angle of Fergus standing next to Jody, his hand in Jody’s pocket and his gun at Jody’s temple. Most notably, when Jody needs to piss, Fergus refuses to untie his hands, so Jody asks him to take his dick out for him. Fergus complains a lot, but he does it, and holds onto Jody’s hands while he leans forward to piss (so it doesn’t just go onto his trousers). Jody leans forward, his face alight with the pleasure and relief of peeing when you really need to go, while Fergus stands behind him, and I’m not saying the shot is framed to evoke anal sex, but I’m not not saying it either. When they go back inside, Jody apologises: “I’m sorry. I know it wasn’t very easy for you.” Fergus jokingly says, “The pleasure was all mine,” and the two of them howl laughing so hard that Peter has to come out to discipline him.
But even more so than physical intimacy, the way Fergus and Jody talk to each other – and look at each other – is fraught with all these tensions, political on one end and romantic and sexual on the other. Everything that they say has shades of meaning, bursts with things unsaid. The IRA kidnapped Jody when Jude took him to a secluded area on the promise of sex, and Jody tells Fergus that he didn’t even fancy her – that she’s not his type, not long after telling Fergus how handsome he is. Fergus tells Jody his name when he really, really shouldn’t: it’s effectively signing his own death warrant, if Jody ever gets out of here. Jody tells him about Dil – “Is she your wife?” “You could say that” – and when it becomes clear that he will be killed, asks him to take care of her for him.
Fergus and Jody’s relationship is an exploration of being confronted with the humanity of the enemy, but it’s also about how that forces you to encounter your own humanity. Jody tells Fergus the story of The Scorpion and the Frog – the fable’s lesson is that it’s in a scorpion’s nature to sting – and it sounds like he’s saying Fergus is the scorpion until he tells him, “you’re kind… it’s in your nature.” It’s an idea that gets repeated throughout the film – whether people act in accordance with some intrinsic nature – but here, it feels like the first time in a long time that someone has noticed Fergus’s fundamental kindness, or noticed it as something other than weakness. When the British don’t release an IRA prisoner like they’d hoped, Fergus is supposed to kill Jody. He runs away, and Fergus can’t bring himself to shoot him in the back – but then a British armoured personnel carrier runs Jody over, killing him instantly.
Cut to a few months later, when Fergus is living in London under the name Jimmy, working on building sites where his bosses constantly call him a mick and a paddy. Haunted by visions of Jody, he finds Dil. He gets a haircut at the hairdresser’s where she works and then follows her to a bar. When you know that Dil is trans, it’s clear what Fergus and a totally unspoiled audience only learn later: it’s a gay bar. It doesn’t lay it on thick, or anything, but it’s easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. Fergus can’t tell Dil that he knew Jody, or his real name, or anything, really. She thinks he’s Scottish, which is a great joke about English people. As is Fergus ordering a bottle of Guinness, because they would surely pull a pint badly.
Dil and Fergus slowly begin to fall for each other. Part of this is Fergus displacing his attraction to Jody onto a seemingly safer destination: when Dil gives him a blowjob, he sees Jody when he closes his eyes. Critics of the film’s portrayal of Dil – and of the reveal scene in particular – usually focus on it justifying the trans panic defense, that is, the defense of straight men hurting or killing trans women because of the shock and distress of being “tricked”. But a part of the reason Fergus reacts so strongly is precisely because he’s not straight. Struggling with his sexuality after his encounter with Jody, compounded by his guilt, he uses Dil as an escape valve for both: caring for her as proof of his heterosexuality and proof of his goodness. When they’re about to have sex, it should be the ultimate reassurance of Fergus’s heterosexuality – that he’s normal, that whatever he felt for Jody was just a blip, that he can bury any questioning deep in the cold hard ground – but then Dil has a penis, and suddenly everything changes. His disgust is inward-facing, not directed at Dil. “I feel sick,” he says, and, after vomiting, “I’m sorry.”
Fergus is wrong, for the record. Being attracted to trans women doesn’t make a man any less straight. But for Fergus, a working-class guy from Belfast in the 1990s trying to avoid considering his potential bisexuality, it’s a shock. One that, like his friendship with Jody, forces him to confront the humanity of both himself and others.
His reaction is terrible, but it’s also, to me, believable. And rather than hating or rejecting Dil, he realises he was wrong, apologises, and tries to make it up to her. She’s slow to forgive him, but she does. Dil never gives a big speech about her identity – which would have instantly dated the film horribly – and she doesn’t need to. Fergus loves her just as she is, and it’s only after discovering she’s trans that he begins to love her on her own terms, instead of as a proxy for Jody. And it’s a low bar, I know, but it’s significant that he never once, even at his most disgusted, calls her a man.
It’s easy to paint it as a love story between two people harbouring deep secrets, but the extraordinary thing is that Dil being trans isn’t a secret at all. It’s just something Fergus doesn’t know. She isn’t keeping it from him: she thinks he already knows because it isn’t a secret. They met in a gay bar! Fergus is just too tragically closeted to realise.
He’s the one keeping a terrible secret, not Dil. He’s lied about his name, his nationality, about being in the IRA, and most importantly, about his involvement in Jody’s death. Jude and Peter come to London, saying that Fergus has been convicted in absentia by the IRA as a traitor and that he must now take part in the assassination of a judge. They threaten to kill Dil if he doesn’t cooperate. To protect her, Fergus cuts off her hair and dresses her in Jody’s clothes. It’s the kind of filmmaking you could spend hours untangling: Fergus’s motivations both known and unknown, even to himself; the culmination of the film’s interest in doubling and ambiguity; the clear allusion to Vertigo, importing that film’s knots as its own.
“I want to change you to a man,” Fergus says. When Dil asks why, he adds, “It’s a secret.”
“Would you like me better that way?” she asks, and when he says yes, he’s lying to protect her, to keep his secret. Unless he’s telling the truth.
Dil agrees. Then, “You want to make me like him.” Jody.
“No,” Fergus says, “I want to make you into something new nobody recognizes.”
Fergus doesn’t succeed – even transformed, Dil is still obviously a woman – but nothing else goes to plan either. He tells Dil his secret while she’s drunk, and she doesn’t take it in. But the next morning, she realises what he confessed. She ties him to the bed and holds him at gunpoint. This prevents Fergus from carrying out the assassination, and Peter is killed in a botched attempt. Jude comes to the apartment for retribution. A distraught Dil screams at her for her part in Jody’s death, then shoots and kills her. She goes to kill Fergus, too, but can’t bring herself to. Fergus makes Dil leave, and he takes the fall for Jude’s murder.
There’s so much we lose when you reduce The Crying Game to the shot of Dil’s penis. The Crying Game is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about identity, in all the messy complications that involves, and only a small part of that is Dil’s gender. Fergus’s sexuality and his Irishness mirror one another, both existing in these in-between spaces, both parts of his nature wrestling in his heart – not with each other, but with competing definitions of themselves. An Irishman in the UK occupies a doubled existence, legally, socially, politically. The legacy of colonialism leaves the nations of these islands intertwined, nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland. In London, Fergus is both a foreigner – he corrects calls of paddy and mick with his assumed name – and not – English people easily swallow the lie that he’s Scottish. Fergus spends the whole film denying things about himself that, ultimately, cannot be denied.
It’s a film that revels in ambiguity, in doubled existences, that finds joy there alongside pain. Even Dil, who next to Fergus is rock-solid steady, refuses easy resolution: I’ve referred to her as a trans woman, and from nearly thirty years distance, that feels like the best term to describe her. But she never explains herself. Her existence doesn’t require explanation.
The film ends with Dil visiting Fergus in prison. She asks why he fell for her, and he tells her the story of the scorpion and the frog. It’s in his nature.