The current rioting in Belfast is an unwelcome reminder, be it from the other side of the barricades, that the violent undercurrents of IRA thriller Shadow Dancer still hum malevolently under the city’s surface.
The current rioting
in Belfast is an unwelcome reminder, be it from the other side of the
barricades, that the violent undercurrents of IRA thriller Shadow Dancer still
hum malevolently under the city’s surface.
James Marsh, the
director who brought us Man On A Wire,
steps dramatically away from his documentary work with a fictional film full of
stylised camera shots focusing on characters’ expressions, as whatever is in
the background slowly blurs into nothing.
The plot unveils in an unconventional mix of the slow-burn
and the sharp shock, with mostly good results. The opening scene goes for
shock: it’s 1970s Belfast, and the young Colette McVeigh plays wistfully with
some DIY rosary beads – a subtle hint at the guilt which will haunt her
throughout her adult life. Her dad has asked her to go out and buy him fags,
but she manages to pass the buck on to her brother. When he returns from his
errand, he reveals a gunshot wound which within minutes sees him dead on the
kitchen table… Cue a close-up on young Collette’s face. A portrait of the end
of innocence, it shows how her future as an IRA activist became fate that day.
The next time we see Colette is as an attractive young woman
(Andrea Riseborough) on the London
Underground – with a bomb. But after she leaves her package she is swiped by
two men in black who take her to an intimidating white room, where Mac (Clive Owen), an MI5 agent, is waiting
to interrogate her. He tells her she’ll have to become an informant on her own
brothers Gerry and Connor (Aidan Gillen
and Domhnall Gleeson). If she
doesn’t, they’ll throw her in jail and she can wave her son goodbye. As he had
hoped, the thought of losing her son does the job.
The most enduring visual storytelling is the image of Colette
in a bright red mac, trudging through drizzling rain and dark clouds towards
her secret meetings with Mac. It may be obvious symbolism – like Lady Macbeth
her hands are stained in blood – but it’s effective, though why someone who’s
trying to keep her life as a double agent a secret would wear red it is
Riseborough as mother, paramilitary and torn betrayer is
outstanding. If she is deeply convincing as the maternal figure who quietly
changes her son’s sheets when he wets the bed, she is also believable as the
hard Belfast woman who stays stony-faced as an IRA boss asks her questions
which, if answered wrongly, could finish in her death right there and then. The
Belfast accent is good, too. It’s a difficult one to master (the only actors to
do it well were Daniel Day Lewis and
the late Pete Postlethwaite in In the Name of the Father). Though
dialogue is sparse, Riseborough’s brogue – much like the Welsh accent she
adapts in her 2011 WW2 film Resistance
– is faultless.
There are moments in which more explanation wouldn’t go
amiss. Gerry, for instance, is a nebulous figure at best, making it hard to
believe that both MI5 are so worried about catching him, and that director
Marsh failed to make the most of the significant acting talents of The Wire’s Aiden Gillen. However, this
lack of elucidation manages to add an air of mystery to the film and to its
already elusive protagonist.
You could say Shadow Dancer falls into an all too easy trap,
that of focusing on the violence of the Troubles rather than elaborating on
their social and political background.
Yet its brooding, crisp and authentic style (screenwriter Tom Bradley reported from Belfast for ITN in the 90s), as well as some
sterling performances, such as Brid Brennan
as Colette’s mother, raise it head and shoulders above most so-called ‘Troubles
films’ before it.
Brad Pitt, who put
on a decidedly dodgy Northern accent and a twee fisherman’s jumper for The Devil’s Own, Hollywood’s laughable
take on the Troubles, wouldn’t have got past a first audition with Marsh. Thank