The Company of Wolves is a true creative collaboration between co-writer and director Neil Jordan and the novelist Angela Carter. They adapted it together from a number of Carter’s short stories, part of her ongoing work with fairy tales, most notably in her astonishing collection The Bloody Chamber. Carter died in 1992, but still has a huge influence over contemporary British fiction as feminist, polemicist and rambunctious storyteller: while most novelists of her generation were writing bleak, tidy novels about sad marriage in North London, Carter was writing brilliant, extravagant, decadent stories like The Magic Toyshop, Wise Children and (my favourite) Nights At The Circus.
We should be grateful that Carter and Jordan found each other, because they have equivalent places in British literature and cinema (although Jordan is Irish, not British, his film-making career has largely been based here, particularly the films he made with Palace Pictures). At at time when British cinema was (as it is now) dominated by determinedly — often grindingly — realistic work, Jordan brought magic and fable to even his most outwardly straightforward films, and in The Company of Wolves created one of the few real British fantasies.
It’s a portmanteau story of sexual awakening, centred on Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), who we first meet as a sulky contemporary teenager, shut in her bedroom away from her uncomprehending sister and parents. As she falls into a dream we’re soon dissolving into a fairytale past — a village, a forest, a looming full moon — where Rosaleen’s constant companion is her grandmother, played with cheery menace by Angela Lansbury. Grandmother is full of stories — and of warnings, particularly about wolves “that are hairy on the inside”. The film then brings to life the stories that Grandmother tells, as well as the experiences of Rosaleen herself; and when Grandmother starts to knit a bright red riding coat it’s clear that Rosaleen is destined for trouble …
At this distance it’s fair to say (a) that some of the effects work looks ropey; there are some stunning transformations, but a lot of it feels rather unthreatening and slow, and (b) that the portmanteau nature of the movie works against it; there are too many stories to tell well within the slender running time. There are also one or two genuinely terrible performances, although any contemporary viewer will rejoice to see Downton Abbey’s butler Carson (the wonderful Jim Carter) fighting wolves. Even so, The Company of Wolves is a rich, strange, unsettling and still scary movie, and it’s still exciting to see a film that treats sexuality with such seriousness, intensity and interest. At a time when fantasy has once again been relegated largely to family movies, it makes a potent and memorable case for the adult imagination.