While much has been said about The Crying Game, much has been left unsaid. In particular, reviewers have been reticent to reveal the secret identity which has caused such a stir about the movie. Those readers who have yet to see the film should be forewarned, the secret identity is the subject of this essay.
Beyond the level of plot, The Crying Game is a film about the relationship between identity and difference or what has been termed "otherness." Director Neil Jordan develops this theme through a pattern of mirror images and doublings. The revelation of the mystery character's identity, for example, requires that we double back and rethink the entire movie from the very first scene and the opening strains of "When a Man Loves a Woman" to the concluding song "Stand by Your Man." Ultimately, through a series of such doublings, the film causes us to see in a new light the ways that difference or "otherness" structures identity in our society.
One of the most significant doublings which crystallize the issue of identity is a fable-like story told at the outset and then repeated at the conclusion of the film. It concerns a frog carrying a scorpion across a river upon its back. Despite promises to the contrary and despite sealing its own doom, the scorpion stings the frog and they both drown. In response to the frog's question "why?" the scorpion replies, "It's my nature."
This story is initially told by Jody, a black English soldier who has been kidnapped in Ireland by the IRA. During most of his scenes he is bound and hooded in a heavy canvas bag. His is the first identity or nature that the film places in question. Beneath his hood, Jody functions as the sign of national and racial difference. As far as the IRA is concerned he possesses only political identity. He represents an oppressive occupying force which thwarts the realization of an independent Irish identity. Jody, however, is an ironic representative of his people, for he himself is a victim of, and denied identity by, the very nation he reluctantly serves out of economic necessity. They do not recognize him as one of them, as a native of a London suburb. He is instead viewed as the "other," marginalized through racial stereotypes and slurs because of his difference from the dominant group.
Fergus, an IRA volunteer, alone attempts to discover who Jody is, to literally uncover his identity by removing the hood. He ultimately reveals his own Irish name to Jody and befriends him, for as his captive points out, it is in his nature. At this point the movie expands toward an exploration of Fergus's divided self, his struggle between political identity and private nature as he wrestles with the idea of killing Jody. This in itself would be enough for an excellent film, as each probes the other's character. However, when the kidnapping goes awry, the movie literally explodes into two halves, doubling itself. In a new setting with a new cast of characters the film goes on to repeat Fergus' struggle between political will and personal desire, but with an amazing twist.
In this second half of the film Fergus takes on the role of Jody and becomes his double: Like Jody, Fergus is victimized by the IRA; he too is betrayed by Jude, his Judas-like compatriot and former girlfriend. In a more significant parallel, his identity, like Jody's, is put into question. After escaping the British security force, Fergus expresses his wish "to lose [him] self," to become "Mr. Nobody," as Jude later calls him. He changes his identity from Fergus, an authentic Irish name which affirms his difference, to Jimmy, a purely generic designation which dissipates identity. Ironically, upon hearing his Irish accent, most Englishmen insist on calling him by the stereotypical Irish appellation Paddy. Jody's girlfriend Dil is an exception—she is willing to believe that he is a Scotsman, his accent notwithstanding.
Finally, in the most significant doubling in the film, Fergus, like Jody, is sexually entrapped. In the same way that Jody was seduced and betrayed by Jude, Fergus will be seduced and betrayed by Dil. In essence the two switch girlfriends. Thus we move to the heart of the movie.
In what is a very sexually charged film, Jordan makes careful and even prudent use of sexual gesture. Far from being gratuitous, as in so many popular but less controversial films, Jordan's sexually suggestive (but not explicit) scenes always serve the thematic function of exploring identity and difference. Thus it is significant that Jody's entrapment occurs at the very moment he is making his initial sexual advance, when he is reaching between Jude's legs. This specific sexual image is duplicated three additional times within the film and is in each instance associated with identity.
When it first occurs in Jody's physical encounter with Jude, sexual and racial difference are invoked. The image next appears a second time while Fergus guards Jody. Fergus is compelled literally to grapple with Jody, who is bound and unable to urinate without manual assistance. He must also hold Jody's hands during this scene, thus exactly mirroring an earlier moment between Jude and Jody. This episode of comic relief is replete with stereotypical homosexual and racial associations. For example, when Jody thanks Fergus for helping him relieve himself, Fergus responds "It was my pleasure," and the captor and captive break into laughter. It is through their laughter, however, that they seem able to transcend, at least momentarily, the various political, racial, and sexual differences which constitute their identity. When the image appears the fourth time at the end of the film, it signifies Jude's crude attempt to remind Fergus of his heritage and to constrain him within his Irish identity.
But it is the earlier third repetition of this pattern, when Fergus encounters Dil, that is the most rife with irony. For the crux of the film is the question of Dil's identity, and this question is crystallized in the moment when Fergus attempts to touch the locus of Dil's sexuality. She of course must rebuff his advances if she is presumably to protect her identity. It is not until she stands nude before us, that the truth is revealed: The long harbored secret of Dil's identity is that she is a man. But is this in fact her identity? When she stands revealed before us are we to assume that the locus of her identity has been literally laid bare? Jordan rejects such reductive logic. We and Fergus are left with the vexing question: Who is the person that Fergus is in love with and is she still there? (Dil could ask the same of the duplicitous Jimmy/Fergus). What Fergus finds difficult as a heterosexual is that there is something in Dil (shall we call it her true, even essential, nature) which he longs to love, regardless of her difference. Dil, in fact, represents the epitome of difference. She is the classic "other." As a black, "female," homosexual, she is marginalized three times over.
It is a marker of how our society has changed that the difference in Fergus's and Dil's race is a complete non-issue in this film. Instead, sexual difference takes center stage, as it has in fact in the contemporary political scene. One need only recall the remarkably similar questioning of what qualifies as marginal in the military's debates over the integration first of blacks, then women, and now homosexuals into the armed forces.
Whatever our thoughts on homosexuality, Jordan presents us with a perplexing encounter with identity. It is an unsettling situation, to say the least, for Fergus and for most heterosexual viewers, I would presume. We can't help but sympathize with Fergus and feel similarly frustrated by the dilemma he faces. Such vulnerability felt by the audience may account for The National Review's pronouncing the film homosexual propaganda. However, unlike propaganda, Jordan's film never forces a conclusion upon us. There are no fairy tale endings, no sudden sexual conversions. Instead, in a cleverly suspended ending both Fergus and Dil remain in love, but nonetheless true to their nature. In the final prison scene both characters are simultaneously united but also separated by a glass barrier. Far from being brainwashed by liberal propaganda then, we are left to resolve for ourselves the differences of identity; we are left to choose for ourselves how we shall respond to the "other."
If anything, Jordan causes us to realize that we define our own identity by whom we exclude: the center is defined by the marginalized. It is against someone like Dil or Jody that the dominant culture validates itself. Thus, our choice of who is marginalized reveals more about our own identities than it does about the "other."
The charge of propaganda does however rightly point to a danger in The Crying Game. The questions raised by the film do in fact endanger the status quo by threatening to decenter the dominant identity, the white heterosexual male. Like the IRA, the movie is engaged in a subversive action, one which threatens to explode the myths of difference by which we identify ourselves.