Northern Ireland in Divorcing Jack and Wild About Harry
[Update: a longer of version of this paper has now been published as Northern Ireland and the problem of identity in Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000), Journal of Eurpoean Popular Culture 1 (2) 2010: 135-149. DOI: 10.1386/jpec.1.2.135_1].
This paper was presented today at the Manchester Centre for Regional History’s Projecting the Region’s Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University.
‘It’s chaos out there …:’ Northern Ireland and the problem of identity in Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000)
Hybridity has become a key concept in cultural geography as an interpretive framework for understanding narratives and identities that are resistant to essentialist and essentialising notions of politics and culture (Mitchell 2005). In the study of contemporary British cinema in particular, hybridity has become the central concept in understanding the proliferation of class, racial and ethnic, and gendered and sexual identities and their interaction with British national identity. In this paper I argue that the multiplicity of identities in contemporary British cinema has been accommodated within a discourse of hybridity that defines British national cinema in dynamic terms. However, this concept of a hybrid British cinema has not included Northern Ireland. As in the rest of the UK, multiple identities are a feature of the cinema in Northern Ireland but there are key differences. These issues are explored through looking at two films produced in Northern Ireland at the end of the twentieth century – Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000). I argue that in these films the problem of identity in Northern Ireland is represented as the confusion that arises from multiple identities and that no inclusive framework to cope with such multiplicity has yet emerged.
Hybridity and identity in contemporary British cinema
The dominant narrative of hybridisation in contemporary British cinema has been set out by John Hill (1992, 1999), who has argued that the concept of a national cinema should be seen as dynamic and subject to change. Consequently, national cinemas cannot be regarded as being straightforwardly pure, but are necessarily hybrid in that they reflect the diverse nature of the nation itself. For Hill, it is only since the 1980s that a cinema in Britain has emerged that is capable of capturing this diversity. Although this means that the myth of the nation of earlier British films are no longer asserted with confidence, the hybrid cinema that emerged is more British for its diversity. A hybrid British cinema has emerged as a result of the ways in which the British cinema ‘became involved in a cultural politics of “identity” and “difference” and, in doing so, sought to negotiate the complex terrain of class, gender, sexual orientation, “race,” and nationality’ since the 1980s (Hill 1999: xii). It is a cinema that ‘deals with the evolution of a myriad of fluid, complex and sometimes conflicting identities,’ and is comprised of films that are ‘multilayered and complex films, not only in terms of narrative, but also in terms of genre, style, and film form’ (Malik 1996: 211-214). It is a cinema that ‘generates the pleasure of hybridisation in the cinematic form’ by filmmakers who have ‘refused to be bound by a rigid national boundary or a singular (cultural, ethnic or national) identity’ (Malik 1996: 212, 214). It is a cinema in which questions of identity are being played out in ‘the complex post-colonial hybridity of contemporary Britain’ (Brundson 2000: 168); and where those identities are ‘often complex, hybrid and contradictory,’ and the meanings generated tend ‘to be pluralistic, fragmentary and often contradictory rather than ideologically cohesive’ (Monk 2000: 156-157).
Madgwick and Rose write that to ‘understand the United Kingdom in its entirety we must therefore understand its parts – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland’ (1982: 1), and a regional approach to the nature of identity in the UK has become particularly relevant over the past decade with the re-emergence of the regional agenda in British politics in the late-1980s and the commitment of New Labour to a programme of devolution and regionalization after 1997. The regional has been one of the hottest topics of British politics over the twenty years, and this has begun to be reflected in British cinema studies. A concern with the geography of the cinema in the UK can be seen in the increasing level of interest in the representation of different parts of the UK in British cinema (see, for example, Berry 1994, Dave 2006, Hill 2006, Petrie 2000); the representation of, and attachment to, specific places – the cities (Brundson 2007, Mazierska and Rascaroli 2003: 161-234, Redfern 2005) and landscapes (Redfern 2007a) of the UK; the social and cultural geography of cinema-going (Jancovich et al. 2003); and the regionalisation of film policy (Redfern 2007b). The hybrid figures in this work in the multiple representations of the UK, in the diverse experiences that these representations facilitate, and in the negotiation of multiple identities in British spaces so that the cinematic representation of the UK in contemporary British cinema offers both hybrid experiences of social space and experiences of hybrid social spaces (Malik 2009, Redfern 2006).
The multiple geographies of Northern Ireland
The history of the conflict in Northern Ireland has its roots in the long and complicated political relationship between the British and Irish and Protestants and Catholics, but has been redefined in recent decades by sociologists and psychologists in terms as a cultural conflict involving a clash of national and religious identities (see O’Dowd 2005). Sociological studies have identified a bewildering range of different identities, including (but not limited to) British/Northern Irish, British/Protestant, Catholic/Irish, Catholic/Northern Irish, Irish/Catholic, Irish/Nationalist, Irish/Northern Irish, Northern Irish/British, Northern Irish/Catholic, Northern Irish/Irish, Northern Irish/Protestant, Protestant/British, and Protestant/Northern Irish (Benson and Trew 1995). Such categories make self-identification possible (Lyon 1997), and serve to ‘simplify the environment’ and make it more ‘understandable’ (Bull 2006) – they serve to answer the questions ‘who am I?’ and ‘who are you?’ Equally, they function negatively and are explicitly used to reject a particular set of identities. It is as important for Catholics in Northern Ireland to view themselves as not British as it is to identify themselves as Irish and for Protestants to be British and not Irish (although there are exceptions for both groups).
Brian Graham writes that ‘this dissonance of identity – ultimately the principle impediment to political negotiations on the future of Ireland – reflects the plethora of places and utter lack of consensus that Northern Ireland has become’ (1997: 209). This ‘plethora of places’ is evident in the differing perspectives on the same place and the intensified parochialism of Northern Ireland in which ethnic differences are spatialised. Reid (2004: 103) writes that ‘although it exists on the island of Ireland and many of its landscapes conform to the Irish ideal … Northern Ireland’s place-identity is confused, fitting neatly into neither Britain nor Ireland, both of which find their own dominant place-identities increasingly challenged.’ The ‘authentic’ image of Ireland has been located in the rural west, distancing the people and their places from the industrialised cities of the British, and explicitly excluding the Protestant community from its image of and idealised Gaelic, Catholic Ireland. At a more local level this confusion produces a mosaic of social spaces that are culturally and physically separate from one another: for example, Derry/Londonderry as a single city experienced from multiple social viewpoints by largely segregated communities, within which smaller enclaves continue to exist (Kuusisto-Arponen 2003). This multiplicity is not limited to the distinction between Protestant and Catholic communities, and Graham (1998) has argued that Protestants in Northern Ireland lack an agreed representation of place and do, in fact, support a set of mutually conflicting set of such representations. Furthermore, this multiplicity is overlaid by Northern Ireland’s position in the European Union (in which it is a designated ‘region’) and the wider world.
The multiple geographies of Northern Ireland lack the framework of hybridity that has emerged in the rest of the UK. This is partly due to the fact that the concept of multiculturalism in the UK is premised on discourses of gender, sexuality, disability, and, primarily, race; and, while these forms of identity are not irrelevant to Northern Ireland, they have been of less significance than the historical ethnic division between Catholic and Protestant. Consequently, the multiple nature of identity in Northern Ireland has not been promoted as a positive attribute but has been, and remains, largely a source of fear and tension, so that while we may think of Northern Ireland as a ‘hybrid, borderland area,’ this has resulted in the fossilisation of ‘identity and difference’ rather than the promotion of the acceptance and celebration diversity (Reid 2004: 109).
Multiple identities in the cinema of Northern Ireland
It is these problems of multiple and confusing identities that are the key themes in two films set in Northern Ireland and written by Colin Bateman – Divorcing Jack (1998) and Wild About Harry (2000). Aaron Kelly writes that Bateman’s novels ‘serve as a reminder that Northern Ireland is always at least two places: a problematic, forestalling entity for both Irish and British Nationalist teleologies’ (2004: 80), and places Bateman’s novels in the genre of the thriller. It is perhaps more useful to place these films in the sub-genre of the noir thriller, as Bateman draws upon this genre to create a darkly comic world in which the identities of key characters are hidden and/or fragmentary and the past, thought to be long buried, erupts in the present day (see Pratt 2001). Bateman uses all of these strategies, but adapts them to his satirical exploration of the problems of multiple identities in late-1990s Northern Ireland.
The narrative of Divorcing Jack follows the investigate-deconstructive pattern of the noir-thriller, as tabloid journalist Dan Starkey becomes entangled in a double murder that implicates politicians, loyalist paramilitaries, and nationalist terrorists, and that threatens to wreck the political process in Northern Ireland. The main thrust of the narrative follows the revelations about a politician, Michael Brinn, whose confession to a terrorist past as Micky O’Brinn, has been recorded on tape and threatens to derail his opportunity to become the first elected leader of a new, independent Northern Ireland.
Starkey is a hopeless investigator and his problems arise from the fact that he consistently fails to recognise anyone. This causes difficulties in the domestic sphere – answering the phone he cannot tell if he is speaking to Patricia, his wife, or Margaret, with whom he is having an affair, and this leads to his eviction from the marital home. More importantly it gets Starkey into trouble in the public sphere, and it is his inability to recognise to who he is speaking and what they are saying that is the driving force behind the narrative. He does not recognise Margaret as the daughter of a prominent political figure and the girlfriend of a well-known gangster, Keegan, he will later mistake for a waiter. Starkey’s misrecognition also has fatal consequences when he inadvertently kills Margaret’s mother in a darkened staircase – a murder he succeeds in getting away with. The macguffin on which the story depends is another example of Starkey’s misrecognition: he thinks Margaret’s dying words are ‘Divorce Jack’ rather than ‘Dvorak’ and so fails to understand the significance of a tape containing Brinn’s confession.
Misrecognition is a central theme of the plot, and is unavoidable given the multiplicity of identities with which we are presented. Where the narrative of film noir typically revolves around a single character whose identity is doubled and whose past re-emerges to disrupt the present, Divorcing Jack takes this to such extremes that every character is either misrecognised, in disguise, or has a second life. Lee, whose dramatic arrival rescues Starkey on two separate occasions from both Loyalists and Republicans, is the most perplexing. We first encounter her dressed as a nun but she turns out to be a stripper. The next time we encounter he she is dressed as a nurse. Like most of the characters she has multiple social roles, or as she phrases it ‘Nun-O-Gram by night, nurse by day.’ This is also true for the minor characters: Margaret’s friend, Jack, is both a civil servant and a stand-up comedian by the name of Giblet O’Gibber. Even Starkey himself puts on a wig in a (futile) attempt at a disguise. Brinn has attempted to forge a new identity as a politician and a man of the people, but his change of name is not an attempt to establish his identity – rather it is intended to obscure his identity but hiding the past. It is the eruption of this past, long thought hidden, that sets in motion the events of the narrative.
The representation of social space in Divorcing Jack shows includes a variety of social places. Donnelly (2005) has noted that the Belfast we see in this film does not exploit the traditional images of the city but displays a tourist version of the city that explicitly avoids references to sectarianism. Belfast is a city of open public spaces (the Botanic Gardens) and attractive and spacious apartments, of new public buildings (the Waterfront Concert Hall) and social spaces (the Crown Bar). It is Donnelly, writes, an image of the city as a tourist destination. In contrast to the modern space of urban Belfast, we have the rundown Catholic township of Cross-my-heart – a gray, monotonous place under the thumb of the local gangster where everyone lives in fear behind the bars on the windows. It is, in essence, a frontier town, and every bit as lawless as one in the Wild West. These two spaces are presented as false. The new modern Belfast is a vision of urban planners, and, as Starkey notes, depends upon the people of Northern Ireland giving up their heritage – it is a space unattached to any particular identity. Cross-my-heart was created as a response to the troubles, moving a community out of Belfast into its own officially-designated place – it is a space of a community in exile. In both cases the relationship between space and identity is compromised. We also find a rural Northern Ireland, and it is in the country that the climax of the film takes place. The image of an ‘authentic’ Ireland has been based upon the rural landscape, and it is in this environment that the truth is revealed at the film’s climax. Brinn reveals himself to be the former terrorist who has misled the public as a politician; Keegan reveals that he was responsible for framing Brinn; and both are killed.
The confusion of identities and space is also evident in the use of names as labels. The problem of multiple naming is explained by Starkey to Parker, the American journalist, when he outlines the many names for: where Parker uses Ireland in an indiscriminate manner, Starkey points to the use of Northern Ireland, Ulster (if you are a protestant), the six counties of the north of Ireland (if you are catholic), or the province (if you are the British government).
At the climax of the film, Starkey launches into a sustained verbal attack on all sides – Protestant and Catholic, Loyalist and Nationalist. This speech has criticised as striking a false note in the film’s darkly comic vision of Northern Ireland – a ‘sudden dive into sententiousness’ (Kemp 1998: 42) – but it is of direct relevance to the film’s exploration of the nature of identity in Northern Ireland. Starkey rejects the idea of a clash of national and religious identities for failing to recognise the people of Northern Ireland as people. He accuses of Keegan and Brinn of ‘dehumanising’ Northern Ireland:
Starkey: I’m an individual. You’re an individual. Dougal off the Magic Roundabout’s a fucking individual. You’re both the same. We’re going straight back to the civil war here because you two don’t give a flying fuck about individuals …
Ultimately, the ending of the film leaves the political situation unresolved. There is no simple, happy ending for Northern Ireland – nothing in the film (beyond Starkey’s marriage) is resolved. Lee (in her role as nurse) tells Starkey that it is ‘chaos out there.’ Chaos is the natural state of affairs, and one that Starkey revels in. Divorcing Jack takes a comic view of the multiple nature of space and identity that are a source of terror; but at the same time it positively endorses the multiplicity of a community of individuals.
Wild About Harry
Like Divorcing Jack, Wild About Harry takes up the question of identity in contemporary Northern Ireland, but approaches it from a different angle. Where Divorcing Jack presented us with a world in which everyone had multiple identities and secret lives resulting from a labyrinthine political situation, Wild About Harry primarily deals with the confused identity of a single character – television presenter Harry McKee – and the manipulation of that identity. Following an assault at a late night garage, Harry has a breakdown live on air before collapsing into a coma at his divorce hearing. He awakes to find that the last twenty-five years of his memory missing and his must come to terms with celebrity, identity, and the present.
Multiple and confusing identities are evident in this film as they are in Divorcing Jack. As he breaks down live on air, Harry exposes Walter Adair, a local MP campaigning on a family values platform, as a bisexual. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Adair vows to get his revenge on Harry and at the film’s denouement, he arrives at the television studio to confront his tormentor dressed as a woman. In one clip we find an Irish identity pushed to an extreme, as Harry watches himself on a special St. Patrick’s Day broadcast from Downpatrick interviewing a man named Patrick Fitzpatrick, with a father and a son of the same name and a wife called Patricia Fitzpatrick. Of course, this might be dismissed as simple ‘paddywackery,’ but it does highlight the problems of naming and identity in an amusing way. Nonetheless, it is Harry and the curious nature of his identity that is the central focus of the narrative.
Harry’s situation is a curious one, as he occupies a unique position as a celebrity without an identity. On the one hand, Harry is the presenter of a popular television show with a dedicated audience of (mostly) elderly ladies; and a public disgrace who’s sexual and alcoholic proclivities are in the press on a seemingly daily basis. Even here there is a discrepancy between Harry as the housewives’ favourite of daytime television and the debauched Harry of the tabloids. At the same time, people repeatedly fail to recognise Harry. At the petrol station Harry tries to play on his celebrity as a guarantee for a cheque having forgotten his card – ‘My face is my cheque card’ – but the shop assistant simply stares back at him blankly, blissfully unaware of the celebrity before him. Similarly, Ronnie, the security guard at the television studio, has no idea who Harry is at all and insists on checking the identification of the biggest star at the studio. Celebrity and fame, then, do not equal recognition and Harry’s identity is fragile even before his loses his memory. Indeed, in one scene this lack of identity is exposed as a facet of celebrity, as we are presented with Harry’s replacement on ‘What’s Cooking,’ who, it turns out, is almost identical to Harry in every way. Harry, of course, has lost his memory and completely fails to recognise the stand-in as a version of him.
If other people are confused about his identity, then so is Harry. Seeing Ruth as a mature rather than a younger woman, Harry is forced to come to terms with the present and is shocked by the middle-aged man in his reflection, and the film presents us with numerous shots of Harry looking at his reflection or at his own image but unsure of the face that looks back at him. He is unsure what he food he likes, if he drinks and smokes, where he works, and in a near-fatal incident discovers he cannot swim. The film focuses on these day-to-day aspects of identity, the myriad little details that make us who we are, rather than the broad statements of political and social identity (e.g. race, class, sexuality) that are the common currency of contemporary hybrid British cinema. Leaving the hospital, Harry can be heard to gleefully declare, ‘I’m a new man.’ Later, whilst on a date with Ruth, Harry rejects the past twenty-five years of his life by deliberately separating his amnesiac-self from his debauched-self: he declares of the womanising and drinking that ‘That was someone else.’
Identity is not fixed, but is something malleable. Quite who Harry is in the present is hard for him to discover as he is being manipulated by those around him. This occurs most obviously after his has lost his memory: Harry’s lack of personal tastes is the result of Ruth’s intervention when she tells him that he does not smoke or drink, and that he eats healthily; while his near-death incident in the pool occurs when his son takes him swimming to test if his amnesia is just an act. On air he is constantly prompted to speak or act by his producer, who it turns out is also responsible for setting Harry on the path to celebrity and infamy that leads to his eventual downfall. The manipulation of Harry’s sense of self is a negative thing, resulting in Harry’s loss of his sense of self – ‘What did I become?,’ he reflects – and his inability to determine his own actions compromises his sense of self.
Wild About Harry does not address the politics of contemporary Northern Ireland directly, but the influence of recent history can still be felt. That Harry should lose his memory of the last quarter of the twentieth century takes him back to the early 1970s, before what are euphemistically called ‘the troubles’ began in earnest, and by investing him with a sense of youthful optimism removes the inevitability of recent political history. The ending of the film, which could be described as romantic and cautiously optimistic rather than happy, presents Harry and Ruth with a possible future if they are willing to work for it. The film does not see the past as determining future relationships, and, although the past can never be forgotten, it can be overcome. For Harry this requires a reassessment of his identity in his own eyes and a renegotiation of his relationship to the people in his life. Harry’s ability to re-create his own sense of self thus holds out the possibility of a happy ending – Harry will win Ruth’s heart a second time if he can be himself.
Kelly (2004: 80) describes Northern Ireland as a ‘lived, ambivalent contradiction,’ and he cites Hughes’s assessment of the relationship between culture and politics in Northern Ireland as a ‘richly ambiguous statement of the always-at-least-dual nature of the Northern Irish and their cultures’ (1991: 10, quoted in Kelly 2004: 81). Contemporary cinema in Northern Ireland is as concerned with the multiple nature of identity as the rest of the United Kingdom, and arguably more so. The dominant concept of a hybrid national cinema in the UK is dependent upon the relative stability of different forms of identity depicted in British films (race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class, region), and represents an attempt to come to terms with those different forms of identity. This is not possible in films such as Divorcing Jack and Wild About Harry which lack precisely that stability that would make any attempt to contain the multiplicity of identities a realistic possibility. The multiple, mistaken, and confused identities of Bateman’s Northern Ireland are a source of chaos that cannot be contained.
Divorcing Jack (Scala Productions, 1998) prod. Robert Cooper, dir. David Caffrey, wr. Colin Bateman, novel Colin Bateman, ph. James Welland, ed. Nick Moore, m. Adrian Johnston, Cast: David Thewlis (Dan Starkey), Rachel Griffiths (Lee Cooper), Jason Isaacs (Cow Pat Keegan), Laura Fraser (Margret), Richard Gant (Charles Parker), Laine Megaw (Patricia Starkey), Bronagh Gallagher (Taxi driver), Kitty Aldridge (Agnes Brinn), Robert Lindsay (Michael Brinn).
Wild About Harry (Scala Films, 2000) prod. Robert Cooper, Laurie Borg, dir. Declan Lowney, wr. Colin Bateman, ph. Ron Forunato, ed. Tim Waddell, m. Murray Gold, Cast: Brendan Gleeson (Harry McKee), Amanda Donahoe (Ruth McKee), James Nesbitt (Walter Adair), Adrain Dunbar (JJ MacMahon), Bronagh Gallagher (Miss Boyle), Doon Mackichan (Tara Adair), Paul Barber (Professor Simmington), George Wendt (Frankie), Henry Deazley (Billy McKee), Tara Lynn O’Neill (Claire McKee), Billy Donnelly (Brendan).
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Posted on September 17, 2009, in British Cinema, Colin Bateman, Film Studies, Northern Ireland, Regionalism and tagged British Cinema, Colin Bateman, Divorcing Jack, Film Studies, Northern Ireland, Regionalism, Wild About Harry. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.