Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

19 July

 

IRA declare ceasefire, 1997

On this day in 1997, the Provisional Irish Republican Army declared that hostilities with Britain were over. It had come into being, in its modern form, in 1969 after increasing unrest over campaigns for more civil rights for Catholics had resulted in the mass deployment of the British Army in Northern Ireland. There had been several ceasefires before, most recently in 1994 when secret talks between the IRA and the British government had led to negotiations about proper talks to secure a settlement. When the British government announced that it wouldn’t go into talks with Sinn Fein (seen as the political wing of the IRA, though becoming increasingly distant from it) until the IRA disarmed, the IRA responded by calling off the ceasefire. A new government in 1997, one that didn’t need the votes of Ulster Unionists (who were against any compromise in Northern Ireland) to sustain itself, changed the mood again and the ceasefire was reinstated on this day in 1997. The ceasefire remained in place until the IRA later declared that it had given up the armed struggle and would work for its political aim of a united Ireland “exclusively through peaceful means”.

 

 

 

Shadow Dancer (2012, dir: James Marsh)

Written by Tom Bradby, an ITN reporter who cut his teeth in Northern Ireland, Shadow Dancer is rich in detail and drenched in the ambience of the time, when an askance look, talking to the wrong person, not being enthusiastic enough about the cause could all get you killed. Bradby’s elegant script and James Marsh’s direction brilliantly set up in a few minutes what many films can’t do in 90 – showing us how the violence of one generation is passed on to the next in a simple scene of a young girl called Collette witnessing her brother being shot and killed in 1970s Northern Ireland. The action then cuts to London in 1993, where Collette, now all grown up and embodied by Andrea Riseborough, is picked up by police after trying to leave a bomb on the Tube in London. Enter Clive Owen in another of his slick “operative” roles, as the MI5 man using charm and naked threat to make Collette become an informer. It’s an offer she can’t refuse. The trap is set.
But when is it going to spring? That’s the coil of tension hanging over Shadow Dancer, which takes the spy thriller genre and does strange things with it. For one thing the mechanics that drive more Hollywood ventures – precise plotting and procedure – is replaced by sheer naked luck. In Shadow Dancer things work out quite often not because of the planning or derring-do but because fate somewhere flipped a coin and it came out heads. Victory also goes to the guy who can think on his or her feet. This insistence on the ad hoc nature of fate is matched by the look of the film – shabby, in a word, whether it is the MI5 offices full of hulking old computers, thick with cigarette smoke, or back in Northern Ireland, where prosperity always lagged way behind the rest of the UK. Nasty particulars also drum up an atmosphere: for instance the scene where hard men casually line a room with plastic sheeting before any questions have even been asked of the person they want to have “a chat” to – it’s going to get bloody.
And there’s the always excellent Riseborough as a very peculiar sort of spy, one who is working against her own people, an IRA woman whose had too much of the Troubles but still isn’t entirely ready to quit. And because Riseborough plays it absolutely straight – to her fellow actors rather than the audience – we’re unsure how far Collette is prepared to take her collaboration with MI5. This lack of a firm handle on the motivation of Collette’s character is possibly what made the film less of an instant sell to some people. Is Collette a good guy or a bad guy? Come to that, what draws a man like Mac (Owen) to a trade like this? And is his boss, tough nut Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) really the iron maiden she appears? Bradby’s script withholds, withholds, withholds, asking us to raise an “undecided” flag against nearly every character in the film, until finally as it deals out the final card, all becomes semi-clear, and we say “ahaa”. And then it all goes cloudy again – the fog of war swirls back in.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Andrea Riseborough’s performance
  • Tom Bradby’s great script
  • Real atmosphere of the place/time
  • Yves Angelo’s deliberately drab cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shadow Dancer – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Shadow Dancer”

  1. The multi-dimensional layers of the Northern Ireland troubles offer rich pickings to thriller writers. Several good books have appeared, but films about the era have yet to find their feet. As with Vietnam War films for the Americans, time and perspective are required before stories stripped of partisan hyperbole emerge. The eponymous book upon which this film is based is written by BBC journalist Tom Bradby who reported from Northern Ireland in the 1990's, the era in which this film is set. With funding from the BBC, Eire and the Lottery Fund the politics was always going to be a problem, however Bradby neatly sidesteps this by producing an apolitical thriller, not a polemic. There are no good guys/bad guys as such, just people responding to a time and period over which they had no control. The Director, James Marsh , directed the acclaimed documentary "Man on Wire". That documentary experience combined with Bradby's journalistic training sets the tone for the film.

    National reviews for Shadow dancer have been very good, but should be viewed with some caution. Bradby is a popular figure amongst the journalist community and some of the notices have owed more to the principle of doing a friend a favour, than exercising due critical discipline.

    For raw material, The Troubles take some beating. The British Government in 1968 was not that bothered about Northern Ireland, nor were the people of the Mainland, but were forced into upholding the Constitution. British Colonialism was the last thing on British minds. British troops arrived to safeguard catholic lives and property, then became the enemy through no fault of their own. The Catholic population was right to demand equal rights and in the absence of Protestant dominated Stormont Government had no alternative other than to call upon the IRA to defend them. But the 1970's IRA quickly developed into a very different beast to the Michael Collins era IRA, with splinter groups such as the INLA even further removed, mirrored by the Protestant UDA and UVF. Turf wars and criminality soon became as important as politics.The British people really were not concerned about whether Northern Ireland was in , or out, of Britain – but took exception to its soldiers being killed and its cities bombed. Equally, the Eire government was keen to play the united Ireland card for political purposes – but dreaded the day when the practicalities actually came about, as Northern Ireland would then become Dublin's problem, not London's. It is against this backdrop that the film is set.

    Shadow Dancer eschews all the aforementioned intrigue in favour of a people, rather than events driven story, and works well because of it. The running time of 100 minutes is tight for a thriller with screen time dominated by Clive Owen as Mac, an MI 5 handler, and Andrea Riseborough as Collette, an IRA volunteer. Both are well cast and convincing, but the intensity of that relationship does not have sufficient screen time which undermines a key dimension of the film. There is little overt action in this story in the form of explosions, violence or chases. Bradby does well to keep the narrative moving, Marsh's grasp of on screen drama is less assured.

    The opening quarter of an hour is very strong. We are initially taken back to 1973 when Collette, as a little girl , delegates a shop errand that her father had given her to her little brother, only for him to be killed by a stray bullet in the street. Then in 1993 we see her as a Failed, and captured, London bomber. Dialogue is at a minimum, action, motive and result are implied not overt. So far so good. However the turning of Collette as an informer is a little perfunctory, it is a case of " No way…….oh, alright then." The authenticity and sense of time, fashion, place and dialogue is good, however , presumably because of funding, the locations are in Dublin, not Belfast which robs the spectacle of some of its drama. The "grey" that seemed to pervade the entire city is bafflingly broken by the decision of Collette, working as a spy, to wear a bright red raincoat for her clandestine meetings with Mac. There may have been some symbolic significance in this, but for practical purposes it was risible.

    An awkward sub plot involving inter security service rivalry is frustratingly portrayed. Gillian Anderson appears as a senior MI5 Officer for no particular reason other than to sell the film in America for neither she as a character, nor her as an actor, adds anything to proceedings. The internal machinations of the IRA are also under drawn. Gerry, the local commander has to organise operations against the British, funerals, discussions about British Peace proposals, house break-ins , tout hunts, torture and executions in around twenty minutes screen time. A promising and pivotal character suffers as a result.

    The denouement to the tale works well in plot terms, and will delight Republicans, leaving the audience guessing as to what had really happened, but is undermined by the lack of characterisation. . Bradby as a journalist is good at the narrative, Marsh as the documentary maker is good at recording it, but as a drama it is good rather than excellent, a criticism more of what it could have been than of what it is not, although I am sure that budget restraints play their part. An IRA funeral confrontation is well set up, but in long shot looks puny and fizzles out. The visceral horror of terrorism is also noticeable by its absence. Eagle eyed viewers will enjoy an on screen news report which features Tom Bradby as the reporter, but with a pseudonym as a tag line. A more experienced director of action and drama, a bigger budget, and a more experienced screenplay writer may yet deliver Bradby the on screen spy thriller success he aims for.

  2. Based on my experience, the distributors may have committed a terrible misjudgement for they should have made this a film for TV rather than the cinema. There were 4 people in total when we went to watch the film and that was par for the course for the week apparently. The cinema manager suggested it would be pulled pretty quickly.

    Such a shame, because it is a fine film, excellent when the scenes are based in Belfast, with ALL the actors who played the Irish parts absolutely first class. You felt you were in Belfast and the tension took you there. Location scenes good.

    Less so the part played by Gillian Anderson. She was OK but a bit wooden. The MI5 scenes generally did not get off the ground until near the end when there was a great twist.

    Clive Owen was the biggest enigma of the film. I am still not sure if he was OK, average or weak in the part he played. First impressions were could have been done better definitely, but the low-key interpretation may have had some merit. Owen just seemed to drift through it all and when he got angry it fell flat.

    I would recommend anyone to go and watch this well-directed film. It is a good story from the writer which needs all the support it can get based on our experience of row after row of empty seats.

    People tend to forget their history even that happened in their lifetime. Tragic truth be told.

  3. This is a great movie from so many angles. At first it has what appears to be a slow tempo but one that sucks you in and has you "biting your fingernails" – yup, without realising it, you're hooked…. and genuinely frightened. Owen and Riseborough are flawless and their characters are addictive. But they aren't the only excellent performances that come out – Colette's brothers and lest I forget, her Mother.

    James Marsh is recognised as a serious talent but one is never certain this movie will go down in the States as much as us Europeans may enjoy it. It should do, because it is not a Northern Ireland film per say – its a great thriller.

    I read the book and really enjoyed it – but that was a few years ago. With this film, Marsh shows he "got it" and then took it further and, like any great Director – showed the reader there is so much more to it, without in any way veering off course. That is the difference between good and great, for me anyway. I can't wait for his next film – I want more, "now".

    Then, there's the book – maybe I'll go and find it on my shelves and get lost in it again. It still stands out as a great read, even if it was a while ago.

  4. Throughout the years, the IRA and the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland have been a source of inspiration for countless British and Irish movies. What can 'Shadow Dancer' add to what we already know about this conflict? The answer is: nothing, really. This film isn't about the struggle for freedom, it isn't about catholics and protestants, it isn't even about right or wrong. It's only about suspense. This isn't a political movie, it's a thriller.

    In fact, this movie could just as easily have been set in the context of the Italian mafia or a Mexican drugs gang. The story about a young female terrorist who, after a failed bombing attempt, becomes an informant for the authorities to escape a prison sentence, is extremely suspenseful. She lives in constant fear of being discovered, which would almost certainly lead to her execution. 'I am dead', she literally tells her contact at one point.

    The film starts off with a clever flash-back, a very intense scene that explains her motivation to become a terrorist. The rest of the film is told in chronological order, with the suspense rising gradually, until the unexpected and dramatic climax.

    In a subplot, we see that the British secret service is subject to the same sort of internal discussions, infighting and ego-tripping as the IRA. Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson (nice to see her again!) are fine as secret service persons, but the best acting is done by Andrea Riseborouh as the proud and independent terrorist Collette McVeigh.

    The film is also excellent in recreating the atmosphere of the catholic working class neighbourhoods in Belfast (actually, it is shot in Dublin), where terrorism in the 1990's was a part of everyday life. Director James Marsh uses faded colours in many scenes to recreate the rundown streets and interiors.

    This is a gripping, intelligent psychological thriller with excellent acting and a plot that will have you hooked from start to finish. I was amazed the IMDb-rating is not higher than 6.6.

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