In an age ruled by fashion-magazine standards of beauty, a maker of romantic movies can find himself in a bind. In all likelihood, he wants to show us the seductive inner workings of love — the way attraction and desire can lead to emotional passion and finally to a kind of cleansing selflessness. Yet movies tend to be a medium of surfaces. When you put magazine-beautiful people on screen and show them ”falling in love,” what it often comes down to is: He’s dashing, she’s gorgeous — of course they end up together.

Now, in the haunting romantic thriller The Crying Game, the Irish writer-director Neil Jordan has found an audacious way out of that bind. His movie is a small masterpiece of deception. After luring us into what appears to be a classic they-gazed-at-each-other-across-an-empty-bar romantic setup, Jordan undermines our expectations so thoroughly that it’s as if we’ve rediscovered our innocence as moviegoers.

Fergus (Stephen Rea) is a handsome, edging-into-middle-age IRA terrorist who has grown quietly disenchanted with his violent ways. He and his gang kidnap a black British soldier (Forest Whitaker), whom Fergus is assigned to guard; instead, the two end up bonding. When Fergus realizes he no longer has it in him to participate in cold-blooded political murder, he flees Ireland and, taking on an assumed identity, lands in London, where his tormented conscience leads him to look up the girlfriend of his former prisoner.

Dil (Jaye Davidson), a hairdresser and amateur chanteuse who swathes her slinky body in sequined miniskirts, instantly fixates on this mysterious stranger. And Fergus, torn between guilt and desire, gazes at this ravishing young black woman and sees an idealized partner: sexy yet pliant, a hint of nurturing hidden in her salacious come-on. Jordan gets the audience to fall in love with Dil right along with his hero. Then, just when we’re sure we know what’s going on, he springs a mind-bending twist (fear not: I won’t reveal it). From this point on, The Crying Game holds us in a dazed romantic spell. Fergus becomes Dil’s protector, a situation reminiscent of Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986), in which Bob Hoskins became the infatuated guardian of a stunning black call girl. This time, though, the relationship is passionately mutual (even as it remains platonic). Jordan uses it to dramatize the way that love can lead to a gradual unraveling of identity, from skin-deep attraction to soul-deep devotion. As the film goes on, Fergus’ feelings for Dil become purified. He moves beyond desire and into something richer, scarier, more ardently true.

Jordan is a master moviemaker who knows how to embed his themes within the seductive trickery of pop storytelling. His cast, too, is splendid. Rea plays the chivalrous hero with a hangdog macho that hooks us from the opening scene. Whitaker is a beguiling blend of friendliness and cunning as the kidnap victim. And Jaye Davidson is a revelation. Speaking in the low musical purr of a postpunk Lauren Bacall, she turns Dil the enigmatic temptress into an idiosyncratically lovely femme fatale, her face an ever-shifting mask of pride and yearning. By the time The Crying Game is over, you’ll never look at beauty in quite the same way. A

The Crying Game
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