James Joyce's Women

James Joyce's Women (1985)

1985, Color

Directed by Michael Pearce
Cinemotography by John Metcalfe
Music by Arthur Keating, Vincent Kilduff & Garrett O'Conner

Cast (in order of credits)

Fionnula Flanagan . . . Nora Joyce, Gertie MacDowell, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Main Washerwoman, & Molly Bloom.
Chris O'Neill . . . James Joyce
James E. O'Grady . . .The Interviewer
Tony Lyons . . . Leopold Bloom
Paddy Dawson . . . Stannie Joyce
Martin Dempsey . . . Joyce's father
Gerald Fitzmahony . . . The Dublin Gossips
Joseph Taylor . . . Dubliner
Rebecca Wilkinson . . .Washerwoman
Gladys Sheehan . . . Washerwoman
Gabrielle Keenan . . . Cissy Caffrey
Michele O'Connor . . . Edy Boardman

The blurb from the back of the videocassette case:

An Erotic Masterpiece

James Joyce's explicit insights into womenkind have been stunningly brought to the screen in this dramatic study of six women drawn from both the life and works of the Irish literary giant.
Passionately narrated by Joyce's "widow," the film depicts the writer's intimate relationships with three key women in his life: wife, benefactress and publisher, as well as dramatizing three lusty and lyrical fictional women this great writer created.
Set at the turn-of-the-century and based on some of Joyce's most controversial passages, this sensual film written and starring Fionnula Flanagan has rightly been hailed as a dramatic masterpiece.

"A versy special kind of film . . . A picture that sings in word and sound."
--Archer Winsten, New York Post

"This passionate film is well worth the visit. Fionnula Flanagan is mesmerizing."
--Stewart Klein, WNEW-TV


Neither Erotic nor a Masterpiece

By Gayatri Devi of High Plains Reader

I remember the time when I went to see John Huston's film adaptation of James Joyce's short story "The Dead" back in Trivandrum, India, many years ago. The movie was part of an international film festival which also brought titillating, Scandinavian, soft-porn movies with such unambiguous titles as The Big Blonde. All the theatres in East Fort were filled with men, most of whom looked like they were there to see The Big Blonde, when my friend Shari and I arrived at the theatre screening The Dead. Needless to say we were the only women in the crowd that made up the tail of that snaking queue.The men looked at us with interest and paid compliments to our breasts, our midriffs and other sundry parts of our body.
As soon as the curtain went up to the tune of "Tequila Sunrise" the men started to get excited. Every time a man and a woman came within five feet of each other we heard them whistle and hoot in anticipation of kissing, touching or something sensual and preferably vulgar. (In Indian films at that time sex was coyly represented by two flowers touching their petals together or two birds touching their beaks together. It was left to Foreign Films to show our men some skin.) But there is no breeding in The Dead; only some very, very old people talking endlessly, and a sad breakdown of romance between a husband and a wife. The frustration level of the audience in that theatre was pretty high. Shari and I saw two movies that day. And ah! the revenge was sweet!
But James Joyce's Women (1985), subtitled "an erotic masterpiece," would barely serve as a suitable substitute for The Big Blonde, or brunettes as the case may be. The movie is not based on any existing Joyce text, but a collection of moments and events, paragraphs and voice-overs, from the lives of Nora Barnacle, Joyce's wife; Sylvia Beach, the owner of the Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company who published Ulysses for the first time, and Harriet Shaw Weaver who was one of the first readers of Finnegans Wake.
Notwithstanding Stephen Dedalus's aesthetic theory that the perfect art should be static and not kinetic, in James Joyce's Women, the sexual acts and accompanying inetrnal monologues of Joyce's texts are translated onto the screen in images that are meant to stimulate our libido. But the effect it produces is neither stimulation nor frustration, but something akin to voyeurism, an uneasy feeling that we are witnessing something that we are not supposed to see. The long Gerty McDowell sequence or Molly Bloom's soliloquy, which are mesmerizing when we read them, feel labored, forced and artificial on the screen. When a woman masturbates in Joyce's text, there are a million other thoughts flitting across her consciousness that put you directly in her private world; but on screen, a woman masturbating is merely a woman masturbating. The simple image towers in a crass manner over the complex mind of that moment.
Many written texts take well to being made into movies; with Joyce I am beginning to think otherwise. The images actually detract from the pleasure that the sounds provide us. Directors seem to hit a dead end at some point or another, perhaps because they too are seduced by the music of Joyce's language, often arranging ponderous or arbitrary images to match the sounds, while a voiceover reads Joyce's text in a rather sanctimonious voice, the kind that we hear on Masterpiece Theatre. It never works. We can see how it flopped even in Huston's The Dead. It fails in James Joyce's Women as well.
Fionnula Flanagan who wrote, adapted, starred in and produced James Joyce's Women has such a sanctimonious voice, and some of the dialogue is rendered flat, even plain silly. She also tends to deliver her lines with hushed overtones, suggesting a conspiracy with the audience, as if to rescue Joyce's reputation from....? Well, it is not clear who the enemy is, but I suspect it might be the Catholic church. But really, does Joyce's reputation need rescue at this point in time, when even in Ireland, the country that Joyce left behind and which banned his books, Joyce has been reinstated with full honors, at least for commercial purposes? Bloomsday draws thousands of pilgrims to Dublin each year and Joyce is studied, if not read, in most countries with institutions of higher learning. This panic, this quarrel with the world, this protectorship is unnecessary.
The film is structured in the form of an interview with Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle, who Flanagan plays as a simpleton, a childish woman who adored Joyce, yet was also a seductive siren. It quickly gets tiring. Especially when the character fails to mirror the ardent love that Joyce himself lavished upon her all his life (barring one or two embarrassingly petite affairs), as is evident from his letters and Brenda Maddox's excellent biography of Nora. In fact, all three of the women who were key personalities in Joyce's life, Nora, Sylvia Beach, and Harriet Shaw Weaver are portrayed by Flanagan in a virtually identical manner -- Joyce's cheerleaders, they form a female chorus who sing his praises. I found it embarrassing to watch the scene where Sylvia Beach introduces Ulysses at Shakespeare and Company to an audience, which includes, among others, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, and Gertrude Stein -- by summarizing the plot in the manner of a first year composition student, laboriously highlighting the similarities and differences between Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses. Even a cursory reading of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast demonstrates the overwhelming genius present in Shakespeare and Company's group of expat intellectuals; Flanagan merely looks ridiculous with this endeavor.
James Joyce's Women does not say anything new about Joyce or about Joyce's women. And anyone who has read Joyce would find the sex quite boring.

Ordering Information
Since deleted, you can usually find a used copy of this film:

James Joyce's Women (1985)
Universal, 1997, VHS, deleted.

Additional Information

IMDB's "James Joyce's Women" Page -- The Internet Movie Database's page on James Joyce's Women.

--Allen B. Ruch
& Gayatri Devi
12 June 2003

BLOOM: (His eyes closing, quails expectantly.) Here? (He squirms.) Again! (He pants cringing.) I love the danger. -- Send email to the Great Quail -- comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

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