The director of the gripping Belfast-set thriller Shadow Dancer, James Marsh, and its screenwriter, Tom Bradby, both have one foot in fact and the other in fiction. Marsh is best known for his imaginative feature-length documentaries, Man on Wire, which won an Oscar in 2009, and Project Nim, as well as his TV film Red Riding: 1980. The TV journalist and novelist Bradby reported from Northern Ireland for ITN in the 1990s, the setting of Shadow Dancer, the first of his six thrillers. Their film centres on the perennially interesting relationship between the spy or informer or undercover agent and the person in authority who controls them. The characters are trapped between the complicated moral realities around them and the fictions that fate imposes on them, and the situation goes back at least as far as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent more than a century ago. But the two films that most immediately came to my mind on seeing Shadow Dancer both appeared shortly after the second world war. The first is Hitchcock’s masterly Notorious, where FBI agent Cary Grant blackmails guilt-ridden Ingrid Bergman into infiltrating a Nazi spy ring in Rio. The second, written and directed by two former Hitchcock associates, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, is the comedy-thriller I See a Dark Stranger, starring Deborah Kerr as an Irish girl raised to hate the English, who tries to join the IRA, is recruited by Nazis and ends up being turned by a British intelligence officer.
The first 20 minutes of Shadow Dancer are a textbook demonstration of visual storytelling with minimal dialogue. On a Belfast estate in 1973 the 12-year-old Colette McVeigh is told by her father to run to the shops and buy him a pack of fags. Otherwise occupied, she passes the errand to her little brother. There’s a commotion outside involving soldiers and civilians, and the boy’s dead body is carried into the parlour, killed in the crossfire. The father closes the door on the guilt-ridden Colette, and the film jumps 20 years to London, 1993. The now adult Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is gingerly carrying a case on the underground. We don’t need to be told it contains a bomb. She leaves it on a staircase and dashes away, making her escape via an emergency exit, climbing a dark narrow shaft that resemblances an entrance to hell. Scarcely a word has been spoken when she’s arrested by two strong-arm men in a back street, driven to an anonymous destination and handed over to an MI5 agent, a commanding figure identified only as "Mac" (Clive Owen). He starts manipulating her from the moment he tells her that her brother was actually shot by an IRA bullet. Then he gives her a choice – to go to jail for 25 years for carrying the bomb and be separated from her small son, or return to her family as a police informer with Mac as her controller.
This crisp, economic opening, a remarkable combination of the stylised and the realistic, takes us into the deeply divided world of Belfast. This is the time when the peace process is about to begin. John Major is bringing a hopeful new voice, both literally and figuratively, to the proceedings after the intransigence of Thatcher. But after a quarter of a century the Troubles have become a way of life, and they’ve shaped and distorted the three generations of the McVeigh family who share the same council house. At the head is the worn, worried, widowed mother (a performance of painful sadness from Brid Brennan). Then there are her two sons, the truculent Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and the sad Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), both committed IRA gunmen, and their sister Colette, and the rising generation represented by Colette’s little son Mark, already showing beneath the childish surface the effects of a clouded upbringing. The film brilliantly captures a twilight world of violence and suspicion, dominated by the IRA’s Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot), a ruthless zealot enforcing discipline and constantly searching for traitors.
The other side of the coin is represented by a divided law enforcement system. MI5, the Special Branch, the SAS and the RUC appear to be at odds with one another, conducting their own policies and not sharing information. "Relax, we’re all in this together," the cool senior MI5 officer (Gillian Anderson) tells the decent, principled Mac, though the nature of "this" is unclear. Is it the furtherance of national interests and the pursuit of a just settlement? Or is it an unholy, insoluble mess and the confused human condition? After the simple, lucid start, the film becomes a labyrinthine tale of cat and mouse, of deception and double cross, of betrayal and confused allegiances. There are exciting clandestine meetings and exposures narrowly diverted. There’s a magnificently staged stand-off between the IRA and the RUC in a narrow terraced street during which the former stage a defiant, impromptu military funeral for a terrorist.
The acting is excellent, especially the central performance of Andrea Riseborough, who manages to express Colette’s doubts and anxieties while retaining a core of moral mystery. There is a mortifying final revelation towards which the film’s title enigmatically points. But nothing is quite as good as the film’s opening sequences, and the movie is a little too dogged in avoiding substantive politics. As Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill observed in Cinema and Ireland, first published back in 1987 and still the best book on the subject, British films about Ireland have mostly "opted to focus on Irish violence while failing to place it in the social and political context which would permit its explanation. And, by doing so, they too have rendered the events with which they deal largely unintelligible."
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