In advance of his new film Greta, set to arrive in April, we continue a chronological exploration of the filmography of Irish director Neil Jordan…
The Company of Wolves can be seen as the first stirrings of what would become certain Neil Jordan trademarks in his storytelling.
Sexuality, and principally forbidden sexuality, is right at the forefront of this take on the classic Red Riding Hood fairytale story, something Jordan hinted at exploring in his first film Angel and spirals back to in his next film, Mona Lisa. Jordan couches these themes in The Company of Wolves very much in the Gothic romantic tradition, with the central character of Rosaleen the young, naive, innocent beauty who is eventually courted by the literal Big Bad Wolf of folklore. The result is a strange, haunting and often quite eerie piece of work.
Though not Jordan’s best piece of work, it’s a striking next step in just how markedly different it is to his previous, debut picture.
Though playing off the Red Riding Hood story, The Company of Wolves sees Jordan embark on his first collaboration with another writer in Angela Carter, with the title and narrative adapted from a short story of the same name in her 1979 collection, ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Carter co-wrote the script with Jordan, who was keen to collaborate with her on a project which, off the back of Angel, allowed the director to attract a higher budget and a more significant body of talent.
Not just a returning Stephen Rea, playing one of the seductive wolves in a shorter role, but talented thespians such as a young Jim Carter, David Warner — already well known for his Shakespearian theatre work and appearances in such cult pictures as The Omen, Nicholas Meyer’s under-seen Time After Time, Tron, the list goes on — even Terence Stamp in an uncredited cameo (as the Devil, no less). And principally Angela Lansbury, who may ostensibly feel like a strange choice to appear in such a darkly Gothic, and darkly horrific in places, picture such as this, given she is remembered most fondly as a key part of the Disney legacy.
Lansbury’s casting speaks to how interesting a blend The Company of Wolves is on the one hand between fairytale confection and brooding, broiling sexuality and inner darkness on the other. While children grew up with her in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and indeed the next picture after this she would make would be as the voice of Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast (she won’t appear in a live action film again until 2005’s Nanny McPhee), Lansbury forged her career in varied roles, everything from musicals to her chilling turn as a master political manipulator in John Frankenheimer’s classic Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
In other words, Lansbury’s casting in the mercurial, gossipy role of the Grandmother in the Riding Hood re-telling, is a coup of star wattage in a picture far less about her character and far more about the temptation and corruption of Rosaleen, played by Sarah Patterson (an absolute spit of Emilia Clarke who couldn’t be further from Lansbury in that she appeared in just one other movie after this and then never acted again). Jordan once again takes an unknown actor and channels the picture through a character on a journey into a world they struggle to understand and reconcile.
There was a sense in Angel that Jordan was interested in storytelling as a device within his narrative, given how the character of Danny in that film becomes an almost-mythologised avatar of good and evil within the broader context of what happens around him, but The Company of Wolves takes this one step further. Jordan introduces a framing device, a bookending construct in which Rosaleen and her family, and the fairytale setting, are nothing more than a Gothic dream of a restless, 1980’s teenager. Another level is then drilled down in how Rosaleen hears, and communicates, stories within the dream narrative to elucidate the deeper themes of the myth being told.
Jordan has described it as a “Chinese box structure” and in an interview for LA Weekly discusses further the rationale behind employing such a structure:
In a normal film you have a story with different movements that program, develop, go a little bit off the trunk, come back, and end. In this film, the different movements of the plot are actually separate stories. You start with an introduction and then move into different stories that relate to the main theme, all building to the fairy tale that everybody knows. The opening element of the dreamer gave us the freedom to move from story to story.
This allows The Company of Wolves to further play on the subconscious level, given the girl is dreaming about Rosaleen’s encounter with the wolf and her life in the tiny feudal-era country village, who then hears tales which anachronistically are set in different eras; the aristocratic, French-styled nobles transforming into wolves at a spoiled wedding party; even the aforementioned Stamp’s appearance as the Devil, literally brandishing an apple while driving a white Rolls Royce through the fairytale land. It is these intriguing touches, this pre-Inception dream layer, which gives Jordan’s film a different complexion than a traditional fantasy piece.
Interestingly, Jordan’s uniquely claustrophobic production design for the fairytale surroundings, filled with gnarled old trees, snowy shadows and wooden houses that feel as deep rooted into the ground as the foliage, was assisted by Anton Furst, who would later go on and work with Tim Burton in creating Gotham City in 1989’s Batman. This feels in many ways ‘pre-Burton’, tapping into the same aesthetics that director will employ in dark confections such as Batman Returns or The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jordan will not follow the same path as Burton in terms of his career, moving too distinctly between genres as he will, but there exists connective tissue.
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While the critical response to The Company of Wolves was strong, the film nominated for numerous awards including BAFTAs, the picture was not a major commercial success in either the US or the UK, debuting in the autumn of 1984 in Britain but the Spring of 1985 in America. Fantasy, particularly dark fantasy, was far from box office dynamite in a climate driven by action adventures such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and comedies which took paranormal and fantastical elements and played with them – Ghostbusters, Gremlins, or The Goonies. The Company of Wolves does not fit this template, yet nor does it quite have the twisted family-friendly candy confection of Tim Burton’s whimsy. It is creepy and dark and nightmarish, and happily revels in it.
Neil Jordan would take another left turn in his next film, returning to some extent more to the roots of his first picture, but he retains several of the thematic concepts he uses the fantasy framework of The Company of Wolves to draw out. Innocence and the corruption of it, youthful forbidden sexuality, a central protagonist unsure of their place in the world and asking questions of it, not to mention a melancholic approach to romance. All of these are as present in Mona Lisa as they are The Company of Wolves.
We will see Jordan return to the Gothic again, but not for a while. When he next revisits fantasy, he will perhaps be looking to tap the success of the lighter fantasy elements that bypassed The Company of Wolves. In this, he will be far less successful than this flawed but memorable evocative and strange second picture.
The Company of Wolves is now available to stream on BFI Player in the UK.