Is the conflict over?
However seemingly independent some news reports are, it can be difficult to get a true handle on the 30-year struggle in Northern Ireland without really knowing the other side of the coin. The closest I got to it was through vague memories of my mother playing the bomb lottery on her daily commute into the City back when I was a child but back then I had no idea why my dad was so worried about whether or not she would even come home on any given day. It was only years later that I found out about the complex politcally-and-religiously-driven conflict, which saw Ireland divided into a war-torn smaller Protestant faction which wanted to stay within the UK and a larger Catholic faction which wanted a united and independent Ireland.
With numerous reasonably successful ceasefires behind us, and the IRA having decommissioned their armed elements, the Troubles (although those who actually have first-hand experience over there would probably, understandably, elect to call it a 'War') appear to be well behind us, but the extent of the involvement of the British armed forces during this period is still a somewhat sensitive topic. Whilst ostensibly neutral peacekeepers, the very nature of the conflict dictated that prejudices would be formed both by, and against, these state security forces.
Unsurprisingly, the first major ceasefire in 1994 was preceded by a period of extreme tension, where in-fighting erupted within the paramilitary and political groups; factions divided between those who thought that peace was for the best and those that did not want to give up the struggle. It is against this backdrop that Shadow Dancer is set, a quiet and reserved film which paints a very real picture of civil unrest and on-the-brink tension.
Back in the early 70s, in Belfast, a young girl persuades her even younger brother to go to the shops for her dad, so that she doesn’t have to. When a gunfight between British forces and Republican Nationalists claims her brother’s life, the girl never forgives herself.
Twenty years later Collette McVeigh is a single parent with a young boy, living at home with her own widowed mother. She is also a bomber for the IRA. After planting a bomb in the London underground she gets swiftly picked up by MI5 Agents and taken to a secure location where an MI5 handler offers her a deal: work for him or face years in a British prison separated from her family; from her child.
She has no choice: she accepts.
Over the following weeks and months a cat-and-mouse game unfolds as her MI5 handlers attempt to extract information out of her whilst her IRA handlers become increasingly suspicious of her. It’s not long before it becomes apparent that there’s more to this than just a normal informant scenario – but with both sides closing in, will Collette be able to keep her wits about her and survive the pressure?
Shadow Dancer is an unassuming spy thriller that came and went in the cinemas with very little fanfare. Made on a fairly restrictive budget, its biggest asset is an authentic portrayal of the tension in Belfast during the early nineties. It does this not by huge conflicts; big explosions and overblown setpieces, but instead by through meticulous attention to detail and a very convincing period setup. A dour, faded palette; government workers chain-smoking in their offices; paperwork barely giving way to computer systems – it has hints of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy about it, and follows the same theme of a mole-hunt, but is presented in an even more low-key way.
Indeed were it not for the presence of Clive Owen, you probably wouldn’t have been surprised if this had popped up late one night as a made-for-TV movie on BBC1 or Channel 4 (it probably won’t take long – it was funded by the BBC after all). None of this should be taken as a criticism; just an explanation as to why this barely registered on the radar.
Of course the biggest aspect where people did start to sit up and take notice was Andrea Riseborough’s lead performance as Collette McVeigh, which won recognition at numerous film festivals. Riseborough’s rising star will hopefully take off this year, with supporting roles in the Welcome to the Punch – a new crime thriller with James McAvoy and Mark Strong – and in Tom Cruise’s latest, the sci-fi actioner Oblivion, both of which are set to open over the next couple of months.
Looking back, though, it will be her performance in Shadow Dancer that probably defines this early stage in her career. Transformed from the unconventionally attractive young woman she is in real life into a weary thirtysomething nineties mother who carries the burden of the whole world on her shoulders – as is evident in her perpetually bloodshot eyes and desperately sorrowful expressions. Still, she’s driven and strong where it counts, and surprisingly tough under pressure, even though it’s her inner vulnerability that draws us in and makes us feel for her.
She’s not exactly a heroine, and she’s likely done too many violent deeds to be called a victim, but you certainly root for her as she gets played like a pawn by both sides, and struggles to take her life into her own hands.
I really would have hoped that Clive Owen could have done more with his career after he didn’t get picked to be the new Bond following on from Brosnan’s reign. He struck gold – a career high – with Children of Men, and pulled of an unusual, atypical espionage thriller with The International, but there’ve been quite a few throwaway roles along the way (the silly-but-fun Shoot ‘Em Up, the downright awful Duplicity, and the somewhat disappointing Killer Elite). Even returning to his Sin City role for the highly-anticipated and long-delayed sequel, A Dame to Kill For, is a questionable decision, although he’ll likely only feature in a cameo, for reasons which those who’ve read the novel will already know.
Here he is superb as the MI5 officer known simply as Mac, who handles Collette whilst trying to navigate the treacherous waters of his own conspiracy-filled offices. Dedicated to the job and unconventionally honest to boot, Owen is perfect for the role, even though you shouldn’t be fooled by his prominence on the front cover – his definitely a supporting character to Riseborough’s lead. Also of note are Aiden Gillen, as one of Collette’s IRA-bound brothers; David Wilmot as the IRA inquisitor who is rooting out the mole, and Gillian Anderson, as Mac’s MI5 boss. Wilmot in particular ratchets up the tension with his brooding, ominous presence.
Through the dedicated, resonating performances and the ensuing characterisations, Shadow Dancer paints a marvellously detailed look at a very personal side to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The politics may just form a part of the backdrop, but you definitely get to see a different side to what has been portrayed in everything from the Harrison Ford / Jack Ryan thriller Patriot Games to the more recent IRA spy thriller 50 Dead Men Walking. Where those films both fictionalised and generalised on the conflict – as is so easy to do – Shadow Dancer doesn’t try to take sides, but instead just paints a very believable small-scale portrait of the effect of The Troubles on everyday families. The tagline – Collette McVeigh: Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy – however clichéd, is actually quite appropriate, with director James Marsh’s film very accurately covering all of those bases, Marsh himself adopting an Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) approach to his style, focussing on faces, gestures and minor tics as the cold, harsh weather erupts in the background.
Between Riseborough’s emotionally-charged core performance and the tension of the authentic backdrop, this little slow-burning thriller works masterfully in its low-key depiction of the latter end of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It may not be to everybody’s tastes, but to those interested in a more authentic tale set during this period, Shadow Dancer is well worth investigating.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.