Carter fantastic: The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)

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The writing of Angela Carter adapted into a film – does life get any better than this? Let’s hope so, because it’s only happened twice, but that just makes The Company of Wolves something to treasure all the more. It’s taken from several stories in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a volume devoted to deconstructing fairy tales. Carter’s view of Little Red Riding Hood is that it’s a story that aims, through equating men with wolves, at making girls afraid of their burgeoning sexuality, and this forms the basis of the film.

Neil Jordan collaborated with Carter on the script, and the director seems to have been well-suited to working with this feminist author. Many of his films –Interview with a Vampire, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Byzantium, The Brave One, Breakfast on Pluto, etc– feel more darkly feminine than masculine. He might joke that the target audience for The Company of Wolves is preteen girls and dogs, but his ideas for broadening the film’s scope only enhanced Carter’s material, and he shows a great sensibility for it.

Ostensibly, The Company of Wolves is a dream in the mind of young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). It contains stories within stories, with various tellers. The modern day mixes with what is seemingly an eighteenth century English village. Some moments operate on dream logic, more about feeling than meaning. These meld admirably well with the story’s more straightforward aspects.

The film’s visual richness belies its identity as an independent British film. The wolves, most of which are in fact malamutes, are often lit so that their eyes reflect in a predatory fashion. Images such as life size toys and stork eggs containing baby dolls harken back to the story’s source within Rosaleen’s mind. Meanwhile, the main set, the village and surrounding forest, is impressively large. It’s a detailed environment, populated by animals (not always British), that changes with the seasons. Like the period costumes and the romantic yet folksy score, it approaches realism while maintaining an unreal aspect.

The story is dependent upon special effects, some of which have dated more than others over the past thirty years. The animatronics are strongly unconvincing at times, but the concepts behind them, such as the famous werewolf transformation in which the wolf’s muzzle bursts through the man’s screaming mouth, are often inventive. The film is better in moments where it is more judicious about what to show, as when a group of humans transform bit by bit, with the camera frequently focusing instead on distortions in a mirror.

Jordan mixes well-established actors with some who are inexperienced. Patterson is one of the latter, as is Micha Bergese, a dancer, who plays the Huntsman. Patterson’s innocence and Bergese’s physicality seem to come naturally, and are ideal for their roles. The far more famous Angela Lansbury is perfect as Rosaleen’s grandmother; this is certainly no Disney film. David Warner is, as ever, quite good as Rosaleen’s father, though once you know that he had recently broken both his legs and sat down at every opportunity, you won’t be able not to notice. And most surprisingly, a post-Zod Terence Stamp appears in an uncredited cameo as The Devil himself.

After weaving through various stories, The Company of Wolves culminates in Rosaleen becoming a Little Red Riding Hood figure. The interactions between her and the Huntsman tease at what we expect from the story, while being quite different. Rosaleen should by now be prepared to meet her grandmother’s expectations and defend herself from the Huntsman, but perhaps she has not learned the lesson she was supposed to. Perhaps she is willing to change, and to be consumed.

The Company of Wolves is open to interpretation. Jordan himself doesn’t think the ending fits the rest of the film. Meaning is there if you want to find it, however, both in the individual stories, and the way they combine and conflict in Rosaleen’s psyche. The way the film is unclear about its intent, yet full of purpose, is a mark both of Carter’s intelligence and Jordan’s affinity for her work.

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