Terrorism, sectarian loyalties, die-hard fanatics, civilian casualties, aggressive security measures, and revenge killings—all complicate chances for peace. These themes could be ripped from today’s headlines. Shadow Dancer lends “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland very tense, sobering, contemporary immediacy.
Opening in Belfast 1973, the McVeigh family is thrust into violence right in their home, as a small son is caught in the bloody clashes between the British forces and the IRA. His red-headed brothers and sister are then seared into radicalism. Twenty years later, the TV news is full of the ceasefire negotiations even as London is still on high alert over past and possible bombings. Now grown-up, the sister, Collette (Andrea Riseborough, mesmerizing at first sight), nervously switches trains amidst the commuter crowds and carries a bulging bag. Deep in the bowels of the railroad station, she panics and drops it. She follows a daring escape plan through emergency exits, tunnels, and ladders up to the street.
Until agents from the MI5 internal security agency seize her. The interrogating agent, Mac (Clive Owen), doesn’t need a confession to hold years of imprisonment over the tough as nails single mother. He demands she turn traitor against her brothers, leaders of the most rigidly extreme IRA faction, and betray the cause her family members have died for over the years. Police movies are full of scenes of turning criminals into confidential informants who usually end up as collateral damage, and Mac insists on cracking a closed circle of intimate trust, where suspected snitches are brutally executed. Privately, even he thinks his promises of protection are wishful thinking, particularly as he has to operate within a bureaucracy of competing interests, ambitions, and procedures in Northern Ireland and Britain—not least his coolly focused boss Kate (Gillian Anderson).
Mac sets up a complicated system of meetings and an emergency beeper whose discovery could risk Collette’s life at any moment. He insists he just wants to know her brothers’ political views on the negotiations. As she hesitates to inform, Mac calls in the troops to storm her house for a shake down. Her coiled older brother Gerry (Aiden Gillen, warning to his Game of Thrones fans, it’s a small role) is still planning assassinations to be carried out by their brother Connor (the more and more intriguing chameleon Domhnall Gleeson), and a scary IRA enforcer (David Wilmot) is ever watching (and ready to torture). Though Collette begins to question the toll of the violence when peace could be at hand, what Mac asks of her tears her loyalties in half, and she can’t even confide in her worried mother (Bríd Brennan), who is trying at least to protect her grandchild’s future. Each plan Collette overhears, each call she surreptitiously makes, each clandestine meeting with Mac escalates her risks, and the suspense is excruciating.
Director James Marsh and cinematographer Rob Hardy bring the same feel of urban noir they brought to Red Riding Trilogy, making a film about entrenched politics feel more like undercover cops and murderers, but with a whole lot more at stake. (While earlier films like Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) and Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son (1996) established the background on the intransigent conflict, the details of the negotiations are a bit unclear for American audiences.) Tom Bradby’s script considerably tightens up his novel, particularly in the fraught relationship between Collette and Mac, so that the sexual tension is more oblique, and their mutual dependence considerably more damaging, and shockingly so.
As London and other cities are again nervous about random attacks and governments’ counter-terrorism efforts have further ramped up, it’s impossible to watch this and not think about the depressing cycle of those caught up in terrorist groups or cartels organized around families. More than a well-acted and great-looking thriller, Shadow Dancer makes a strong, emotional case for the bravery of those in the exhausted middle who sacrificed for peace to prevail, as it eventually did in Northern Ireland.