Whenever film directors write books, it's tempting to examine their output in one medium entirely in light of their output in the other. Given most directors' difficulties in getting their untrammeled original visions to the screen, literature sometimes takes on the luster of an escapist outlet, a medium where budgetary or technical limitations and studio interference aren't a concern, and filmmakers can air the broader, more daring stories they might make given unlimited cash and freedom. But for Neil Jordan, the Oscar-winning writer-director of The Crying Game, Michael Collins, and The End Of The Affair, among others, novels came first. That dynamic shows in Shade, which depicts a world that's smaller, more internal, more down-to-earth, and more insular than his movies.
Shade begins much like The Lovely Bones, with its protagonist's murder, dismemberment, and secret interment at familiar hands, and with the resultant ghost's mute but eloquent witnessing of what follows. The victim is famous fiftysomething actress Nina Hardy; the murderer is her handyman George, a seemingly addled giant she'd known from childhood. After her death, Nina relives the life that led up to it, from her earliest days in turn-of-the-century Ireland with her half-brother Gregory and the siblings George and Janie, two poor children from the wrong side of the river. George's mental limitations are evident early on, and the other children bully and tease him while protecting him as a beloved mascot and plaything. Nina alternately punishes and rewards his fixation on her, but her fascination with Gregory begins too early, persists too late, and runs too deep. Janie's crush on Gregory completes and complicates a circle that's already full of unspoken ties, and Jordan moves back and forth in time to illustrate how those ties developed throughout the foursome's lives, from the childhood playgrounds of the River Boyne to the theatre of WWI to Nina's continent-hopping film career.
Jordan has a point to make: Shade returns in the end to the murder and its causes, from a different angle that explains the seemingly inexplicable. But the book has more to do with an elegiac exploration of childhood whimsy and imagination, as well as the faces and farces they develop into in later life. As children, Nina and her friends inhabit a colorful world of self-created fictions; as adults, they still speak in stilted abstractions and literary references, and even the dimwitted George can recite and internalize high-flown Shakespearean prose. The baroque language and complex internal structure renders Shade more novelistic than cinematic, but Jordan still does with words what he does in his other career with images: He paints a vibrant story where every movement and phrase seems heavy with significance. But as with his films, reality sometimes loses out to arty, expansive style, making for a surreal world that's prettier and more immersive than it is believable.