In advance of his new film Greta, set to arrive in April, we begin a chronological exploration of the filmography of Irish director Neil Jordan…
The debut feature of Neil Jordan belies that of a newcomer to cinema. Angel, while rough around the edges, displays a depth and artistry to signal out this filmmaker.
Jordan was already an established novelist, and the son of an Irish professor as well as university student of Irish history and English literature, when he circuitously arrived at the camera when he shot an on-set documentary about John Boorman’s re-telling of the Arthurian myth, Excalibur. In quite a fascinating piece of history concerning the foundations of the Irish Film Board and a certain level of controversy around Boorman’s role within it, Angel ended up becoming a crucial launchpad of Irish cinema in the early 1980’s, not to mention kickstarting Jordan’s career.
Boorman, by this point a celebrated director both in the UK and Hollywood thanks to pictures such as Point Break and Deliverance, served as a clear totem for Jordan in his role as Executive Producer on Angel, a picture which carries weighty themes on a small frame.
Set in Northern Ireland, the film revolves around Danny, a saxophonist who witnesses not just the murder of his boss but that of an innocent deaf-mute girl by masked, gun-toting killers. Consumed by a need for revenge, Danny begins to systematically expose and hunt down the killers, distributing his own form of vigilante justice. Danny is played memorably in a breakout star turn by Stephen Rea, who would go on to become one of Ireland’s most significant film actors over the next three decades, and collaborate with Jordan on almost every one of his films, up to and including his upcoming latest picture as of 2019.
Angel is a stripped back and unshowy piece of work, yet you can trace the influences of Jordan’s script to vigilante pictures such as the aforementioned Point Break or indeed Mike Hodges 1971 British gangster thriller Get Carter; cold and recalcitrant works, particularly the latter with its grim, grey Northern English setting. Angel takes place in County Armagh in the equally chilly Northern Ireland (though it was filmed in the Republic of Ireland), with the backdrop of the so-called ‘Troubles’ framing much of Danny’s determined quest to avenge the innocent he witnesses gunned down.
What you won’t find in Angel are any direct suggestions of which paramilitary organisation in the age old sectarian conflict which raged across Northern Ireland before the Good Friday agreement effectively ended the IRA’s dominance as the primary terrorist organisation haunting the Western world in 1998. Jordan doesn’t even directly mention the conflict at all, everything is simply assumed given how the killers conceal themselves in balaclava’s and sport the kind of machine guns only a paramilitary organisation could hold. Jordan doesn’t play into stereotypes but he does access your preconceived notions as an audience.
In his essay ‘Avenging Angel: An Analysis of Neil Jordan’s First Irish Feature Film,’ Richard Kearney expands on how Jordan approaches Irish political violence in Angel:
This film does not sponsor any specific ideology; it concentrates on the mentality which produces violence – regardless of whether it is inflicted by Republican, Loyalist or British law-and-order agents; or by somebody totally non-political. And this concentration on the psychic roots of violence permits Jordan to penetrate the common core of metaphysical nothingness (which he calls, borrowing from Blake, the ‘nobodaddy’) from which all acts of violence ultimately derive. He thereby uses cinema to cut through all conscious forms of socio-political ideology to a metaphysics of the unconscious.
Kearney’s analysis speaks to an underlying nihilism apparent in Angel and the journey of Danny, characterised in Jordan’s often sparse script.
Rea manages to often downplay Danny as, by degrees, a charming jobbing musician and in fits of pique, a somewhat unhinged vigilante grappling with his own moral compass. Yet this is underscored by a melancholic eeriness to the events Danny finds himself embroiled in, almost as if he is being tested. The girl who dies, the deaf-mute young woman who appears out of nowhere on the night of a gig, the same night his boss is murdered, can be seen as the veritable titular ‘angel’ of the story. She represents an innocence destroyed and, at one point, almost corrupted by Danny himself. “You’re too young” he says, as she draws him in for a kiss.
The loss of innocence Jordan will return to in his next feature, The Company of Wolves, which more acutely through the prism of Gothic fairytales picks out the burgeoning writer-director’s clear interest in the forbidden, particularly when it comes to sex and attraction, and how we relate that in the eyes of God. Danny is clearly attracted to the mute, it is suggested underage girl before her death. He is attracted to the opposite, a sinful, devilish new bride of loose morals whose brutish new husband is one of the band of killers, and beds her on his quest for vengeance, you sense almost as an intentional slight against her husband. “Am I like him?” Danny asks her. “You’re like him now” she replies, as they continue their embrace.
Across the picture, Danny is constantly treading a fine line between spiritual concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The police detective even characterises the killers across Ireland murdering indiscriminately with such Biblical language, as he stands on that line between these dual concepts wrestling for the control of Danny’s soul. His intended paramour, fellow band member and ‘angelic’ singer Deidre, also stands on that line and frequently offers Danny the chance of escaping the path he is on, even if she has no idea of the murderous actions he is taking. Is Danny a good man, an ‘avenging angel’, taking matters into his own hands? Or is he no better than the murderers themselves?
Angel is not a picture to openly ask such questions. Neil Jordan is happy enough to pose them and is rather more interested in allowing the visual narrative to carry Danny’s story along, his camera often capturing the faded bleakness of a world slowly being sundered, a world existing on the fringes of deeper existential violence. Danny is almost an avatar for such a dichotomy – he simultaneously exists in a virtuous, artistic world filled with music and song, while equally finding his hands immersed in the muck and mire of killing and retribution. He encapsulates what, at the time, must have felt like a never ending violent cycle in the Irish psyche.
Not content to launch the career of Rea, the faith imbued in Jordan by Boorman and Channel Four, who significantly ponied up most of the budget, gave rise to a career which would eventually take Jordan to the heights of the Hollywood blockbuster with, arguably, his most famous film, Interview with a Vampire. We are over a decade away from such excess, however.
Angel, while at times unnecessarily slow and ponderously introspective, is nevertheless an impressive shot across the bows from an oft-unheralded filmmaker. Icy and tough, encased inside an etherial awareness of its relationship to higher powers, Angel is a beginning, in more ways than one.
Angel is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.