Compromise, manipulation and ambiguous loyalties in Belfast.
The film starts with a flashback to the gritty 1970s reality of the troubles in Belfast and a personal tragedy that traumatises a family. The legacy of this reverberates into the early 1990s, just on the brink of the peace process, when tensions and arguments intensify. The family is active in the IRA – freedom fighters to some and terrorists to others – Shadow Dancer doesn’t judge.
Andrea Riseborough as Collette focusses the film with her vulnerable and troubled beauty. She is a young mother coerced into the role of informant by the MI5 man, Clive Owen. Loyalties are strained on all sides, with MI5 not supporting their man, and the bond which holds the family together fracturing, exposing secrets held for decades. We do not know where Collette’s loyalties truly lie, and how many layers of subterfuge she must enact in order to be or appear to be a bomber. The IRA is a dangerous friend for the family to have, and just as much a threat as the police or MI5. Discovery and a bleak death could come at any moment.
Brìd Brennan is impressive as the mother who holds the family grief. Collette’s brothers, played by Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson are the real IRA deal, nurturing retribution while their leaders consider peace, and whether that means defeat or progress.
Writer Tom Bradbury, who wrote the screenplay based upon his own novel, is also a TV news reporter. He started out in Belfast in the early 70s, and brings authenticity of detail from all sides into this fictional parable. Unable to film within Belfast itself, the locations are equivalent areas in Dublin and London, which further serve the film’s apolitical stance, as it brings a slight unfamiliarity to the usual wall-muraled Belfast scenes, while still portraying the unremitting grimness of the situation.
It is a political thriller without the politics, and a thriller without the action. Judgements are not made about who may be in the right or not – everyone has their motives. The drama centres on the loyalties and motivations of people caught up within a web of conflict, rather than being specifically about Ireland. All sides are compromised: all sides must make intolerable decisions. Revenge and justice are inevitable, but that will only create more victims and more retribution. This indeed was the dilemma of Ireland at that time, and all sides played dirty.
The tense IRA funeral scene exemplifies the situation – showing the terrible repression suffered by families, while equally sympathising with the difficulties faced by soldiers.
Gillian Anderson is somewhat underused as the hard-headed boss who must balance out the deaths, while Clive Owen thinks he is in control, looking for a vulnerable crack to pull Collette’s IRA family apart while being undermined and manipulated himself.
The pace is slow and introspective and deliberately left sparse for the audience to fill in. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has pulled it all together with great cohesion, and yet stripped so much of context out that it takes some time before tension is really built. Much of the hand-held camera work gives a sense of scrutiny, yet is noticeable and nervy. The layers of conclusions come as a shock, but with a fateful inevitability.
Slow-burning, sombre and anxious.
Watch the trailer for Shadow Dancer here: