I must admit I went to see Shadow Dancer with no small amount of trepidation. Films about Ireland, with a few notable exceptions, tend to be either woefully inaccurate or a cringe worthy hodgepodge of various clichés and leprechaun inspired paddywhackery. Or both.
Set in 1993 at the height of British Intelligence’s dirty war in Ireland, Shadow Dancer had the potential to be particularly misleading. Thankfully however, director James Marsh has wisely opted to largely stay out of the politics of the period and focus in on the individual (and fictional) story of Colette McVeigh, an IRA volunteer. After an aborted attempt to plant a bomb on the London Underground (an uncomfortable and spurious allusion by Marsh to the 7/7 bombings perhaps) McVeigh is arrested by MI5. Using her son as leverage MI5 agent Mac (played by Clive Owen) blackmails McVeigh into spying on her republican family and neighbours. “No one will get hurt, no one will die,” he assures her, which provides the final push she needs to turn tout.
What she imagined MI5 were going to do with the information she gave them apart from hurt and kill remains a mystery to me, perhaps she thought they’d send the Provos some strongly worded letters, but in any case it sets up the next act of the film. In a move about as surprising as finding a cock on Lady Gaga, MI5 throw McVeigh to the wolves as soon as she outlives her usefulness (what’s the world coming to when you can’t trust the murky underbelly of the British war machine?) As Mac tries to withdraw McVeigh against the wishes of his bosses and the IRA begin to close in on the traitor in their ranks the tension is ratcheted up to almost unbearable levels.
There can no doubt that the film features some fine performances, particularly from Andrea Risbourough (McVeigh), Domhnall Gleeson (McVeigh’s brother) and David Wilmot (the chillingly ruthless IRA intelligence officer charged with tracking down the traitor). It also does an excellent job in building up the tension and is visually and technically stunning at times. However a few glaring mistakes and misrepresentations threaten to unravel the whole thing. One scene in particular, set at an IRA funeral, will infuriate anyone who has been to a republican funeral and witnessed the dignity with which the crowd conduct themselves.
Overall however Shadow Dancer manages to dodge many (although by no means all) of the traps that have blighted Irish based films for so long, begorrah.
Verdict: A wonderfully acted and brilliantly executed (no pun intended) slow-burning thriller that almost sabotages itself with a handful of ill-conceived scenes.
Words: Martin Hearty