THE COMPANY OF WOLVES

Directed by Neil Jordan. USA/UK. 1984.


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The Company Of Wolves is an adaptation of the short story of the same name, which was featured in Angela Carter’s book of short stories, The Bloody Chamber.  The film (a grown-up version of Little Red Riding Hood) takes place within the dreams of an adolescent girl.  In these dreams, she takes on the persona of Rosaleen, a young village girl who is frequently told cautionary tales by her grandmother, warning her to beware of men whose eyebrows meet in the middle.  Throughout their travels through the forest, Rosaleen’s grandmother repeatedly warns her not to ‘stray from the path.’  However, Rosaleen begins to realise that straying from the path may bring its dangers but it might also open up an enticing new world.

While some films may not bear close analysis, The Company Of Wolves is strongly metaphorical.  One the surface, it may be a simple retelling of Little Red Riding Hood but this is an extremely superficial reading: as with Angela Carter’s writing, the film features Freudian imagery and explores themes such as female empowerment and the transition from childhood to adulthood.  For example, when Rosaleen casts off the cape that her grandmother has made for her and strays from the path in the forest, she is leaving behind the shielded world of childhood and accepting adulthood and her sensuality.  Indeed, the scarlet colour of the cape prompts Rosaleen to notice that it is ‘like blood’, which hints that she is going through the physical process of puberty.

Visually, the film is beautiful and cinematic, prefiguring Jordan’s later Interview With The Vampire.  The imagery is sumptuous and surreal yet it also retains an earthiness shown by its depiction of life in the village and the shots of the various animals that roam the woods, as well as the occasionally bawdy language.  As such, the film brings the source material to life, with Jordan crafting a film that compliments and is respectful to Angela Carter’s writing.  For anyone who has read Carter’s work, this film should certainly prove a pleasing adaptation.  For those who haven’t, it proves an excellent doorway to her writing and the themes that she discusses.  As for the werewolf effects, they are not as dated as one might imagine and the film actually benefits from the lack of CGI.

The visuals of the film are enhanced all the more by George Fenton’s first-rate score.  Whether it is the merry music of the village, the chilling synthesised compositions used as Rosaleen’s sister runs in terror through the forest, or the tour-de-force of Liberation, the soundtrack is completely in tune with the film.  Perhaps the synthesised music dates the film a little but this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Rather, it is a matter of preference.  Even if it is dated, it is effective nonetheless.  

The acting in the film is also strong.  The young Sarah Patterson pulls off what is potentially a difficult role and manages to create a multi-dimensional character, possessing the strength and touch of feistiness to make her actions towards the end of the film believable.  Indeed, it is hard to believe that she made so few films as, on the evidence of this film, she had the looks and talent to become a star.  Micha Bergese also excels in the role of the huntsman and displays the necessary charm and seduction to make Rosaleen’s attraction entirely plausible.  It is a shame that the scenes between the two come so late in the film as they are the most involving and form the crux of the story.  Another player who deserves mention is Tusse Silberg, who brings honesty, compassion and wisdom to the role of Rosaleen’s mother, appearing to be the one who perhaps best understands her daughter and the film’s themes.  Her scenes with Patterson seem completely genuine and bring out the mother-daughter bond between the two characters, with her advice proving more realistic and understanding than that of Rosaleen’s grandmother.  This is particularly evident when she tells her daughter ‘If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women’, which is in contrast to the grandmother’s simplistic statement ‘Don’t stray from the path.’  The character of the grandmother may seem a little grating but this helps us to understand Rosaleen’s actions and makes the ending of the film seem more plausible and favourable: in order for Rosaleen to gain her independence, there has to be something or someone for her to break free from in the first place.  In this case, it is the sheltered life and caution advocated by her grandmother.  Angela Lansbury plays the role as intended and brings a touch of humour to the film, as evidenced in her scenes with the village priest.  As Rosaleen’s father, David Warner also turns in a solid performance.  Other actors to look out for are Jordan regular Stephen Rea in an early film role and a cameo from Terrence Stamp as the devil.   

The ending of the film is interesting in that it departs from the short story.  However, it is difficult to say whether one is better than the other: the story’s ending (Rosaleen removing not just her shawl but all her clothing and ending up in the arms of the wolf) works well in written form but would probably not translate as well to the screen.  Likewise, the ending of the film relies heavily on visuals and sound and these could not be as effectively portrayed via words.  One benefit of the film’s ending is that it has a slightly ambivalent quality, which was absent from the short story.  There is a majestic tone as the Liberation theme plays and Rosaleen runs with the wolves, reflecting her newfound independence and sexuality.  However, this then segues into terror as Rosaleen’s real-life alter ego awakes to find wolves invading her room and causing her toys to fall and shatter.  This represents the loss of innocence and security that comes with adulthood.  As such, the film represents both the positive and negative aspects of such a transition and leaves the film open to contemplation.  Certainly, the ending of the short story was satisfying and was more overtly sexual, yet the film’s ending provides more food for thought.  Overall, each of these endings is appropriate for its medium.

The film is extremely rich in meaning and so it takes several viewings in order to appreciate all its intricacies.  However, rather than being a chore, contemplating the film and its various themes is part of the appeal.  One could watch the film at its surface value yet its merit lies in its metaphorical nature.  If one does not recognise this, then the film loses its impact.  In conclusion, it is not ‘switch off brain and enjoy’ entertainment but if one is willing to explore its themes and imagery then it should prove stimulating and, in the case of female viewers, empowering.

Lucinda Ireson
 
 
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