Recommends: Top 10 Neil Jordan Films
Ha Ha Ha! And here I thought I would be gushing full of words after the last article. Alas, I was emaciated of words, as much as the forgotten swede was of its hearty innards, lost beneath a bag of potatoes, a half clove of garlic and various assortment of onions (too many some would say) that I recovered on one of my many culinary excursions. Speaking of root vegetables, let's explore the beautiful emerald isle to herald one of its finest filmmakers: Neil Jordan.
Born in Sligo, Ireland, Jordan is a director, screenwriter and novelist with plenty of titles in his repertoire. Perhaps not as household a name as some would believe, it is likely that most people have seen a Neil Jordan production at some point; two major TV series The Borgias (2011-2013) and Riviera (this ran from 2017 to 2020 and one in particular that Jordan has distanced himself from due to jeopardised creative integrity) and his filmography is a conglomerate of high profile literary adaptations, Hollywood thrillers, bumbling comedies (1988’s High Spirits is fun, but it’s no Ghostbusters) home-grown domestic dramas, odd fables (2009's Ondine had so much potential) and magical realist odysseys. Not to say that these are your run-of-the-mill pay check directors works. Although his recent works have proven more than a little disappointing, his portfolio has cemented his legacy as one of Ireland’s greatest filmmakers. Jordan has an eye and a voice quite unique to him, one that has made him one of my most favoured auteurs.
An acute awareness and tenderness toward his country’s political unrest, having grown up in it all himself and bared witness to many of Northern Irelands most horrendous events, his sensibilities have allowed him to capture many of the stories from this time and find a humanity that proved controversial during many a production. ‘The Easter Rising’ and later ‘The Troubles’, make many a backdrop to his works, and beyond that Jordan captures something far more humble. These topics are particularly potent to me, having family who have lived through it in Northern Ireland, with the tragic events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 practically unfolding on their doorstep. I feel very passionate about this part of modern history and to find a filmmaker who captures neutrality on the topic, who isn’t afraid to ground the politics, in the height of the controversy, is amazing. Jordan’s films are not perfect on the topic, but they certainly don’t demonise and boil the issues down to black and white. Ireland has a long and troubled history, often skimmed over in textbooks in the UK despite events playing out a stone’s throw away. In his films I began to see a representation that wasn’t juvenile or ridiculous (I’m looking at you 1992’s Patriot Games).
Alienation, repression within religious organisations exploring a complex relationship with Catholicism and faith, societal rejection, gender identity and sexuality; the films are fit to burst with casts of characters on the edges of society, the outlaws, the ‘villains’ and the lost souls. And then there is his depiction of these within an Irish setting. Jordan, for me personally, is a wildly radical storyteller who has actually pushed the boundaries of our perceptions of these themes, on taboo subjects, treading and trying his best to remain truthful on political minefields. There is poetry in his words, his films sumptuous and sensual in the most peculiar of ways.
That’s enough pining, I’ve gone into some detail on the style storytelling Jordan takes and it’s similarities with Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. Check out that essay, The Storyteller: An Exploration of the Writer/Directors Pedro Almodóvar and Neil Jordan, and see me lap ‘em up. Let’s get down to business so I can talk about my ten favourite films by this wonderful director.
10. Byzantium (2012)
"I remember everything. It's a burden." - Eleanor
One thing that tends to work for Jordan is when he keeps his stories relatively close to home. That is my biased opinion of course. As a girl who has lived by the Sea her whole life, it was refreshing to see such a bleak gothic fantasy take place just a few miles down the road from me. He took the Vampire Mythology, familiar territory he trod nineteen years before in the brilliant Interview with the Vampire (more on that later), and decided to try a new twist on the tales. Considering that Byzantium came out on the tail end of the Vampire boom of the late 2000’s, his take was mature and contemplative. A story of the value of family surpasses the more traditional tropes, blending the new elements of the genre and taking a new route by placing in the foreground fierce maternal love.
Starring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton, the film tells the story of two women, a mother named Clara and her daughter Eleanor, who have sort refuge in a rundown seaside town. Their secret? They are vampires, and a dark past they harbour could endanger their future if discovered. Eleanor's teenage vampire finds herself writing her life story, tearing each page out and throwing it to the wind in a desperate attempt to be heard, all the while falling for a sickly human boy. Meanwhile her mother is seeking sex work in an attempt to support them and her bloodlust.
9. Angel (1982)
“Hating is easy. That's what I found out. It has its own ways. It just grows. The man whose clothes you are in, I hated him for years. I'd stand beside him at mass and pray, Lord let me be free of him.” - Mary
As debuts go, Jordan’s is pretty fine indeed. His first collaboration with actor Stephen Rea, an actor I think is so outrageously underappreciated in cinema with his work with Jordan being one of the most underrated director/actor combinations, he took on a noir-ish tale set during Northern Ireland’s ‘The Troubles’, that unravels into a character study of a self-conscious, yet talented man in a bad situation. Not his most visually delicious but filled with plenty of moments that would later impact his work. I found it to be highly entertaining and thoughtful, surpassing much of his later Hollywood productions that unfortunately riddles his later work, and I truer reflection of the kind of stories he triumphs in telling.
A saxophonist (Rea) bears witness to the murders of his manager and an innocent bystander which sends him spiralling into darker realms as he seeks out the gang member responsible. Setting aside his saxophone, an instrument he plays beautifully although riddled with self-doubt over his abilities, he wields a gun in its place and finds the certainty he lacked. Meanwhile, his relationships with his band members, his budding romance with their lead singer, begin to evaporate as revenge consumes him. Far from a bloody crime caper, Angel is tentative story exploring the nature of violence and its claim over those feeling robbed of power.
8. The Butcher Boy (1997)
"You can do one bad thing. That doesn't mean for the rest of your life everyone's going to say, 'He did it! It's him! He did the bad thing!'"- Francie
Jordan is a marvel at adapting literary works. Many of my favourites to come have all been derived from great novels, his own background in writing proving to be a powerful tool when translating the format to screen. A rarely cited but brilliant adaptation would be his take on Patrick McCabes 1992 novel The Butcher Boy. A black comedy, it is told in the style of a stream of consciousness, first person narrative through the eyes of a young boy named Francie, growing up in a small town in Ireland during the sixties. His alcoholic father (another amazing turn by Stephen Rea – I’m so biased, I know) is a tyrant who has little to do with him but holds his mentally disturbed mother in a cycle of physical and emotional abuse. Meanwhile, Francie (Eamonn Owens, in his first role) lives in a realm of fantasy of violence and absurdity, heavily influenced by the films and comics he consumes. The threat of nuclear eradication looms over him, and the eventual suicide of his mother leads to an escalation of behaviour landing him in a reform school run by Catholic priests (can you see where it’s going...).Whilst there he begins to seek comfort from the visitation of a foul mouthed Virgin Mary.
I won’t say much more on the plot. Clearly, Jordan found something relatable in McCabe’s macabre comedy; recognising the humdrum town, the economic decline that plagued Ireland following the war, the influence of American media, and the frustration of this kind of repression and the bleak futures promised to those experiencing the fear of the Cold War. Francie’s psychological state is constantly called in to question as trauma upon trauma is layer upon him. He is an unreliable narrator whose delusions prove to be desperate outlets to find someone to blame for his suffering and in doing so he begins to unravel. It’s an incredibly bleak story, with the cast doing an amazing job capturing the tone of a novel considered impossible to adapt due to its narrative style, and Jordan manages something gentle beneath the horror.
7. The End of the Affair (1999)
"Pain is easy to write. In pain we're all drabbly individual. Now what can one write about happiness?" - Maurice
Well, there will be a lot of adaptions to be fair. From one of the greatest metaphysical love stories, Jordan adapted Grahame Greene’s 1951 novel, and my favourite of his works, that uses a great love affair in wartime Britain as the basis for a spiritual study of faith and sacrifice. It’s utterly devastating and made all the more poetic and powerful by Jordan’s direction. Dark stairwells, foggy mornings, vintage London, longing looks and lost loves, my goodness do I simply swoon over this film and I haven’t even gotten to the cast list; Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Rea (again!)
Novelist Maurice (Fiennes) is tortured by the abrupt conclusion of his love affairs with married Sarah (Moore) two years before, following an air raid in the city that endangered both of their lives. An encounter with her husband the reserved and straight-laced Henry (Rea), seemingly unaware of the relationship, reveals that he has sought his help when he suspects that his wife is seeing another man. Fuelled by jealousy, Maurice hires a private detective to unravel the secrets of the woman he loved passionately and to find out what happened to make her leave him. The actors do such a great job; they have wonderful chemistry. I hate the US trailer for this film because it dumbs down just how masterfully Jordan interpreted the complex story; despite it being a romance, which is pretty racy (Moore and Fiennes are fine!) it’s roots stem in something deeply thoughtful, a drama unfolds, interweaving the novels two halves to allow for a constantly engaging handling the themes of faith, infidelity and love beautifully.
6. Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
"But did true love save Kitten from the hands of the beast, in that worst of all fairy tales? No. What saved Kitten was her precious perfume spray, bought for £2.99 in Roches Stores on Henry Street before she left her beloved Emerald Isle."- Kitten
Another McCabe adaptation, this one really struck a chord with me and becomes one of the major titles in Jordan’s works that I urge everyone to see; certainly if they are a fan of Cillian Murphy, who plays transgender woman Kitten. Jordan captures the sense of humour McCabe has, and the combination of their writing creates unique stories that I have yet to see done so well. I also love how Jordan never seems to hesitate with ‘taboo’ subject matter, alluding not only to ‘The Troubles’, capturing the atmosphere of that time in this fantastical story, Pluto is not a far stretch from one of his most notorious films, and the inclusion of a transgender woman living in seventies Britain and Ireland (and all the great music that comes with that, by the way) certainly was an underrepresented subject matter even in the 2000’s. I mean, these sorts of stories really have only come to prominence in the late 2010’s and even now the representation of gender and sexuality in cinema is lacking, certainly in mainstream. Things are beginning to change but when I think of great films to recommend in this genre, Pluto is still a worthy watch.
As a baby, Kitten was left on the doorstep of a rectory in a small Irish town and found by a priest (played by Liam Neeson) who happens to be his real father. Born Patrick, she spends her youth in an abusive foster home and eventually, once free of the environment, pursues her life as a woman. Moving to London on the coat tails of a rock group, Kitten deeply wants to find her mother and the answers surrounding her birth, all the while working in a variety of jobs as a dancer, prostitute and magicians assistant (Stephen Rea again as the magician, a meek yet kind man who falls for Kitten). It’s funny and warm and delightful. Murphy is endearing and gentle as the tough Kitten who takes on a lot and still remains an optimist. Her way of life is romanticising all of it, realism is overrated and her narration of events paints a valiant picture of the life she’s living. She’s trodden on and always gets’ back up, she’s an inspiration.
5. Mona Lisa (1986)
" She was trapped. Like a bird in a cage. But he couldn't see it. He liked her, but he was the type who couldn't see what was in front of his face. And there she was, in pain. You can get soppy about someone, well, you can't see these things, and he was, soppy sod." - George
I’m being a little controversial here having this so low. The precursor to The Crying Game, many of the similar tropes are present though breaking new ground in his later work. But Mona Lisa is a classic in its own right as a great British noir. Starring the late, great Bob Hoskins in an Oscar nominated role, Michael Caine and Cathy Tyson, it’s a return to something resembling his debut. Only this time, Jordan seems to be having more fun with it.
A small-time crook (Hoskins) had been let out prison and found that his position has been compromised and he no long holds rank in his old territory. Getting in contact with his old boss (Caine), cut off from his wife and old acquaintances, he is given a job as a chauffeur for a call girl (Tyson) at night. Over time they bond and she seeks his help in searching for a woman from her past who has herself been forced into prostitution. However, the forces that be have no intention of letting up easily, the call girls pimp wields a violent power over her and the underworld is proving to be an abyss of deception, violence and pain. There are some killer lines in this film; the relationship between the leads is bitingly witty and entertaining. I simply love their back and forths. It’s a great example of how brilliant Jordan can be with an original script.
4. The Company of Wolves (1984)
"If there is a beast in men, it meets it's match in women too." - Mother
Yes: Jordan and fantasy, handling one of Britain’s greatest Magical Realist novelists Angela Carter. A Halloween tradition in my home, despite its lack of scares, it’s a coming of age fable that plumbs the depths of the Red Riding Hood tale. Merging three individual tales from Carters 1979 anthology, The Bloody Chamber, a series of feminist retellings of infamous fairy-tales, it’s a totally wolf-centric experience with plenty of bite. A relatively low budget and tight restrictions, the film boasts some impressive sets (one in all that was redressed to fill a whole forest), cool costumes and great SFX that, had An American Werewolf in London not blow everyone’s mind 1981, would have trod new ground. It’s still impressive to watch today, filled with wonderful dialogue, turns of phrases and witticisms straight from Carters’ marvellous book.
The story is framed around a young girl, Rosaleen, who is trapped in endless dreams of enchanted forests, of wolves and men whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Her transition into maturity is as much a physical change as it is allegorical. Within the dream world, following the death of her sister by wolves after straying too far from the path and the village, Rosaleen stays with her grandmother who relays cautionary tales of beastly men, calls of nature, witchcraft and trickery. Its charm lies in the decade, in the brilliant practical effect and sets. The marvellous theatrics of those involved cast a spell over us all, and what an impressive cast indeed: David Warner, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Rea… again, and Terence Stamp shows up too. It takes you into another world and it’s timeless Maybe it’s the young girl in me that simply adores this unique coming of age tale and wishing my own could have been so fantastical (It really was not, if anything it was crippling in every possible way that makes a semi-successful adult) but I still find something entirely relatable; it’s sensual and weird and glorious to look at.
3. Michael Collins (1996)
"Give us the future, we've had enough of your past. Give us back our country, to live in, to grow in, to love." - Michael Collins
This is probably one of Jordan’s most important films; an attempt to tell the history behind Irelands most controversial figure. Collins was the revolutionary, a member of the Sinn Fein, and later head of intelligence of the emerging IRA and the leading party in the incredibly divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty. Spending much of his life as a member of the resistance against the British forces, seeking a free Ireland, Collins was later a major political player, eventually assassinated. Spanning the final days of the ‘The Easter Rising’ in 1916 to his eventual death, Jordan took on a lot when he decided to make this biopic. Under major studios The Geffen company and Warner Brothers, it’s amazing that he was able to wield as much artistic licence and creative control over the story that he did, despite a desire from executive producers to downplay the breakdown of the politics in exchange for romance. Also, we are forced to endure one of the worst Irish accents in cinematic history; the offender is Julia Roberts. The rest of the cast is simply spectacular: Liam Neeson (who does a cracking job in the titular role), Alan Rickman as Eamon De Valera, Aiden Quinn, Stephen Rea (Whoop), Brendan Gleeson and Charles Dance.
I’m not saying what Jordan achieved was perfection. Historically and politically we are looking at something far too complex to ever satisfy any side and with Irish memory what it is, it is unlikely even now to ever reach a satisfying interpretation of events. If you look at their history in actuality, the civil war never really ended. Furthermore, a pressure from studio heads meant that much of the events were downplayed or fictionalised so as to make it easier for international audiences. This only proves that the history of Ireland is neglected in education systems both here in the UK and beyond. But Michel Collins in a sense is still one of the few major films that manage to approach the difficult topic. It makes sense though, for an Irishman to give voice to Irish history in this way. By taking it on, I think it displays some bravery on his part. It’s filled with beautiful cinematography, a certain scene in which Collins emerges from a mist is burned into my mind forever, a haunting score by Elliot Goldenthal, vocals performed by Sinead O’Connor, it’s still engaging almost thirty years on, and one of the best depictions of Irish history on screen.
2. The Crying Game (1992)
"...and as they both sink beneath the waves, the frog cries out, 'Why did you sting me, Mr. Scorpion? For now we both will drown!' Scorpion replies, 'I can't help it. It's in my nature!'" - Jody
His magnum opus. It’s the one that really is one of a kind. It got the director an academy award for best original screenplay after all, and of his self-penned works it perfectly encapsulates all the themes we’ve grown to love. It really pushed the boundaries of queer presentation on film, sexuality, and Irish politics, all within this complex love story. Yet it was the fact it was an IRA member’s story that the film struggled to get distribution, with most UK organisations steering clear. That was, until Miramax (that Miramax) got its hands on it and marketed the film in the US. Now it had a twist you simply couldn’t afford to miss. I’m sure most people know it by now, often cited and spoofed, but at the time it was one of the first films to ever really enter this territory, and so sensitively... And with a ‘RA man no less!
Back in noir territory, IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea takes the lead here in one of his best roles), partakes in the kidnapping of a British Soldier, Jody (a surprising performance by Forrest Whittaker). He and his associates, the femme fatale Jude (a fabulous Miranda Richardson- speaking of another underrated actress) and Peter (Adrian Dunbar) keep him imprisoned in an isolated, dilapidated cottage where Fergus watches over him. In time, they begin to bond in secret and Jody tells him of Dil (Jaye Davidson), the woman he loves back home. However, when things take a turn for the worse, Fergus flees the organisation, seeking a new life and identity in London, all the while searching for Dil and bearing the agonising guilt of what was done. I suppose much of the controversy came from the humanity found within its depiction of an IRA member. That and the taboo love story at the centre of it all. It shocked audiences back in 1992 and to some degree is still as powerful as it was back then. But the controversy aside, the film still holds its own thirty years on, so Jordan did something right. The explorations of friendship and loyalty, the psychological journey of Fergus and his shame carry much weight, and are powerfully captured in Rea’s performance. Oh, and have fun trying to get the titular song out of your head once it’s all over, not a day goes by where I don’t hum it.
1. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
"Evil is a Point of View. God Kills indiscriminately, and so shall we." - Lestat
I did think about putting this second. Only because culturally, politically and cinematically, The Crying Game is superior as a piece of art. But I will be dammed if Interview with the Vampire is not my absolute favourite vampire movie, favourite Jordan movie and one of my ultimate favourite movies of all time. Another staple of my Halloween viewing, this tale of the unhappiest vampires you’ll ever meet is theatrical, horrific, larger than life and yet so emotive. Yes, it’s probably his biggest cast and budget with Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater, Stephen Rea (who makes an appearance as one of the most malicious, unsettling vamps) and Kirsten Dunst all frequenting the bleak worlds these creatures of the night lurk in, but it’s so gripping. I can quote it for goodness sake. The music is beautiful, it’s artistic choices impeccable.
Spanning centuries, across New Orleans to Paris and then back again, it’s a voyage across the lonely infinite nights, the curse of eternity looming over these miserable creatures. American gothic plantations, the old-world Mississippi riverside, the labyrinthine streets of 19th century Paris and to the modern day New Orleans, now only showing glimmers of its forgotten past, have never looked so good. And the homoeroticism of the story only seems even more mind-blowing for the time in a big- budget production, deeply sensual and only growing ever more potent with age and repeated (fun fact: Rice was so acutely aware of the homophobia of Hollywood that she attempted to rewrite Louis the vampire as female and encourage them to cast Cher in the role to get the story made)
A journalist is stalked by Louis de Point du Lac (Pitt), a two-hundred year old vampire who wishes to tell his sad tale of eternal bloodlust. Following the loss of his wife and child, Louis is plagued by guilt and wishes for death, a wish granted by the vampire that has been watching him from afar. Lestat de Lioncourt (Cruise), lonely as he is, turns Louis and they begin a reluctant life together in which manipulation and possession reign. I mean, so much more happens in the film, I could relay each plot point but it would only go to ruin the overall story. There is violence, good vs. evil, an exploration of parenthood, the conflict of love and obsession. Most of all, it’s about ones man’s guilt, his apathy to himself and what he must be to live. The relationships Louis enters into are often devious, stemming from desperation in the perpetual loneliness these vampires will face. The story begs for the answer; what is evil? What is Love? What is freewill? What makes us human?
Jordan did something phenomenal when adapting Anne Rice’s work of the same name (also one of my favourite books). Although Rice was credited as screenwriter, Jordan did many revisions to put the tale onto the big screen, and many of her works have not translated so well since. Even the casting, I can believe, was probably out of his hands; there are a lot of heartthrobs on show here and yet under his direction he manages to get some brilliant performances. Cruise is gnawing the set left right and centre and doing a grand job of it too. His interpretation of Lestat is near perfect and he is equal parts sexy, terrifying and heartbreakingly fragile. Meanwhile Pitt, who I am often left cold for, gives one of his best performances as the sensitive Louis – check out the execution scene, it hurts. Even Dunst is astounding. She’s so young yet manages to hold her own against the whole lot of them, capturing Claudia’s innocent years and her later hardened years as the promise of eternal youth plays its cruel cards against her. It’s her first major role, and she slays it.
Interview with the Vampire is Jordan’s most lavish production. The colours, the costumes, the sets: ugh is just ravishing to watch. Each frame is a gothic masterpiece. Jordan’s brush of magical realism to capture the change in worlds from human to vampire, his grounding of the stories sensationalist parts in opposition to the domestic dramas that unfold before us are just so... edible! That ending scene with Guns n Roses cover of Sympathy for the Devil is glorious and better yet, the prostitute scene in which Lestat torments Louis (and not for the first time) whilst playing with his prey. I could probably go on for hours about why each scene is great, possibly even ranking them and maybe even re-enacting it if someone asked nicely.
There’s also a lot of heart here. Following the death of River Phoenix, who was slated to play the journalist four weeks prior to filming, he was replaced by Christian Slater. Slater gave up his salary, choosing to donate it to all of Phoenix’s favoured charities and the film was dedicated to the young star who passed away too young. I think it’s a film made with a lot of passion, a memorable blockbuster of the nineties that is from a time much in the past, when there was more to see and choose from, where studios still took risks. You would never see something of this kind now. It’s a product of its time, and yet it lives as everlastingly as the vampires that haunt its tale.
Well, that’s it folks. My Top Ten Neil Jordan films for all to enjoy; funny how, for someone who feels like they can’t make words do things, once going, I can’t seem to shut up about a movies I really like. I hope you find a new favourite and let me know if there’s any you would add to the list.