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.