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23 August 2012

Fear and Loathing in Belfast

It goes without saying that James Marsh's new film Shadow Dancer, based on Tom Bradby's adaptation of his own novel of the same name, paints a very bleak picture of Anglo-Irish relations in the early 1990s. It is definitely a thriller but the slow-burning kind, where the tension and the intensity build throughout the 1h40 film. There are hardly any action sequences, but they would have been overkill for this subtle and superbly acted drama.

In Belfast in 1973, a young girl encourages her little brother to go to the shop to buy her some sweets, but he never comes back alive, to the despair of the family. Twenty years later and Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is riding the Tube, nervously eyeing her shoulder bag. After a botched attempt (or was it?) to set off a bomb on the Underground, she is picked up by MI5 and escorted to a hotel room where she meets Mac (Clive Owen). He has enough information on her and her family to send her off to a grim prison for the rest of her life and to send her young son into care. Or, she can turn informant and meet with Mac once a week to let him know any IRA-related activities her two brothers Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) are planning. In return, he promises to keep Colette and her son safe. As a further carrot, he seems to have information that may reveal who was really responsible for the murder of her younger brother, all those years ago.

Writer Tom Bradby (R) discusses Shadow Dancer at the Mayfair Hotel

It isn't much of a choice, and Colette grudgingly agrees to her weekly appointment on the beach with Mac. It quickly becomes clear to them both, however, that the higher-ups in the IRA are soon going to work out the source of the leak, making Colette's position extremely precarious. Mac promises to do everything he can for her--indeed, he seems to be rather more emotionally involved with her than he ought to be, and certainly more than his boss Kate (played by a cool, power-suited Gillian Anderson) thinks he should be--but is that enough? And what if his own agenda doesn't match as closely with that of his colleagues? In 1990s Belfast, it's hard to know who is 'doing the right thing,' if it's even possible. And as Colette struggles to balance her roles of loyal sister and mother, and informant, it's clearly not going to be long until everything comes to a head.

Riseborough is great as the scared but strong Colette, tasked with the unenviable go-between role, caught between family duty and self-preservation (and love of her son). She barely smiles during the entire film, but although Marsh is clearly avoiding trying to make any moral judgments or to define the 'goodies' and the 'baddies,' Riseborough is extremely sympathetic and human, even in her most tragic of decisions. Despite his high billing on IMDb, Clive is only a "with" role (as is Anderson), although he does get a fair chunk of screentime, where he does his husky, crusading, papa-bear best. This is not by any stretch of the imagination a romance, but the chemistry between Riseborough and Owen crackles and sparks throughout the film.

I watched Shadow Dancer at a preview screening at the Mayfair Hotel this evening, and was lucky enough to listen to a Q&A with Tom Bradby after the film. He talked about his own experiences as a young political correspondent in Belfast in the early 1990s--unsurprisingly, many aspects of the story he tells are inspired by real events. What he really wanted to create with Shadow Dancer, he said, was a really good thriller about a small group of individuals in a terrible situation, analyzing how they behave to one another. In that he certainly succeeded.

He also talked about some of the differences of opinion he and Marsh had. Marsh was apparently very much of the opinion that the audience should be left to work things out and draw their own conclusions; Bradby tended to argue that some scenes needed a little more spelling out. The ending--which, without saying too much, is shocking, powerful and does very much leave it up to the viewer to interpret--worked very well, I thought, but there were a few other scenes that seemed to have been over-edited and a couple more lines or moments of explanation might have been handy. Not because I need spoon-feeding but because there are lots of complications around the relatively simple set-up, and it was good to hear Brady talk about a couple of cut scenes, including one between Mac and Kate, where Mac asks her if she likes playing god. We are supposed to identify emotionally with Mac, you see, but intellectually with Kate. The film seems to have changed a lot from the book--Mac's character was much younger and had a bit of a different role, including a rivalry with someone from Special Branch; for the film, Bradby decided to keep the focus on Colette and those immediately connected to her, which I think was probably a smart choice.

Shadow Dancer is jarring on the nerves but well worth watching for the powerful performances and its portrayal of the brutal, unapologetic realities of 1990s Northern Ireland, and, on a more basic level, its portrayal of the competing burdens of family duty, love, trust and betrayal.

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