James Marsh’s newest film explores Northern Ireland’s Troubles in Shadow Dancer (Marsh, 2012) and I visited Dartington’s Barn Cinema to see if Marsh’s take on the IRA, was up to scratch…
Marsh’s film starts in 1973, where we are introduced to Collette (Andrea Riseborough) and the McVeigh family. In this, the opening scene, Marsh illustrates who the real victims are of terrorism, and unsurprisingly, the victims are innocent bystanders -personified here by Collette’s younger brother. Moments earlier Collette sent her brother to buy some cigarettes, for their father. An errand their father asked her to run, instead it would be his -and to a degree, her -death sentence. When we see Collette’s little brother next, his body is lifeless and bloody, with a gunshot wound to the chest.
The film skips forward 20 years, to 1993. Collette is grown up. She’s in London, on the London Underground and carefully clutches a large bag. Marsh doesn’t fixate upon the contents, but it’s surely a bomb. Marsh seems to suggest that Collette must atone for the death of her brother, and so, wracked by guilt she participates in a world of terrorism, suspicion, betrayal and murder.
While on the tube, Collette becomes suspicious that she is being watched, so she gets off, abandoning the bag on a stairwell and makes her escape. This scene in particular is beautiful to watch, at one point it is almost as if she’s traversing the nine levels of Hell -you wouldn’t think she’s leaving the London Underground, but escaping a villain’s lair.
After reaching the surface, Collette is captured by MI5 agents, who were indeed watching and following her every move. Collette’s terrorist attempt has been foiled and shortly after she’s confronted by an MI5 operative, called Mac (Clive Owen). Mac presents Collette with a choice; she can go to prison for 25 years and her son will be taken into care or she can work for the British government, as an informer. Reluctantly, Collette agrees, understanding she must betray her mother and two brothers, Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) and Gerry (Aidan Gillen).
The acting in Marsh’s film is excellent, but in particular Andrea Riseborough and David Willmot’s performances that really shine. Willmot plays Kevin Mulville, a pseudo-investigator, who investigates possible IRA informants and kills who he believes is guilty. But it’s the battle-scarred performance from Riseborough, which ties the film together. Collette is a strong woman, filled with conflict and grief. She fears for her son’s safety and future, understanding first-hand the consequences of a life in the shadow of terrorism. However, it isn’t just the McVeigh family that have been shaped by this conflict, but an entire community. Belfast circa 1993 is a radically different place to Belfast 2012.
Shadow Dancer is a film filled with moral angst; does Collette do what’s right by her family and thus the IRA, or does she protect her son and attempt to use this opportunity to break free? Her mother pleads with her at one point to speak to her brother, Gerry, about leaving ‘the life’ behind. The film is a moral tale of actions and consequences, and its mothers are its conscience.
The film is careful not to take sides; the British are depicted as opportunistic, Mac exploits Collette’s brother’s death by tainting a piece of evidence, suggesting it was an IRA bullet that killed him. And Mac’s cold-as-ice superior, played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson, doesn’t hesitate to cast-aside Collette -essentially handing her a death sentence -when she’s presented with a better informant.
Shadow Dancer is naturalistically shot, resists the usual tropes of a period piece (of this nature) ie excessive news-footage and a soundtrack from the decade, and instead focuses upon tension, an intelligent script and great performances. This tense thriller doesn’t quite deliver come its conclusion, but the film ends assuredly enough and it’s great to see Andrea Riseborough’s star continue to rise. She’s a great actress, with a promising career ahead of her.