Shadow Dancer: A review

By the early 1990s it was apparent that the IRA had been militarily defeated by the British. The fantasy that an organisation of a few hundred active members could beat a professional army of tens of thousands backed up a a massive police and intelligence apparatus was laid bare. The resulting demoralisation made it very easy for MI5 and the RUC to recruit informers writes Liam Mac Uaid. Depending on which estimate you accept it’s claimed that between 20% to 30% of the organisation’s members were providing information to the police or MI5, a weakness that seemed to become more common in the upper reaches. Freddie Scappaticci, who had a key role in the IRA’s counter intelligence section, fed information over a number of years which resulted in the arrests and assassinations of people who considered him a comrade. These jailings and killings enabled the British to prune the Republican leadership by getting rid of its most uncompromising members and, as the accounts of Scappaticci’s story reveal, they were willing to approve the murders of large numbers of unconnected people to preserve their informants. Such is the moral high ground of imperialism.

This is the squalid, treacherous setting of the new film Shadow Dancer. Whatever the intention of its writer Tom Bradby, a former ITN journalist, it may be the first film ever made in which the hero is a relentlessly determined IRA counter-intelligence officer.

Given that ITN was rarely the news bulletin one would watch for insightful, unbiased coverage for events at the time and the fact that BBC films are promoting it the motives and actions of militant Republicans are treated pretty sympathetically. There are none of the usual stereotypes of the cross community romance or the anguished liberal reassessment of political choice and the closing scene is a bit of unrepentant Fenianism.

The action starts in Belfast in the early 70s when two children argue about who should go to the shop to get their father’s cigarettes. The brother loses, leaves the house and is killed by a stray bullet. Twenty years later the sister Collette McVeigh played by Andrea Riseborough, whose attempt to bring British imperialism to its knees by leaving a bomb to disrupt London’s tube network for a few hours, is thwarted by her arrest. She is shown proof that it was an IRA bullet which ended her brother’s life. Clive Owen, an actor who requires three people to maintain his hair according to the credits, is the British intelligence agent Mac who offers an easy way out of twenty plus years in an English jail. All she has to do is collaborate and feed them information when she gets back home. She hesitates for ten minutes before agreeing, the thought of having her son taken into care trumping her ideological commitment.

On occasions giving a film a small budget improves it. Shadow Dancer is a good example. There are no pyrotechnics or CGI special effects. The camera lingers on faces, the dialogue is sometimes sparse and we are spared character establishing monologues. Dramatic and political conventions drag the viewer’s sympathy towards the informer even though MI5 breaks its unlikely promise that none of her “brothers” will get killed as a result of her collaboration. The heart of the film is her attempt to avoid being uncovered by the IRA counter intelligence chief, Mulville. His character is played by David Wilmott with a chilling detachment, a necessary quality for the person heading up what was referred to by Republicans as the “nutting squad”.

The only duff note in an impressively minimalist and uncompromising drama is a kiss between Mac and McVeigh and maybe the Belfast accents could have been a bit authentically harder.

Gillian Anderson, a performer whose celebrity probably would entitle her to three hairdressers, delivers an elegantly brutal performance as the MI5 boss who has been manipulating Mac but to explain why would ruin the reader’s enjoyment of a very fine film which, whether it means to or not, is a meditation on loyalty, ideological commitment and personal integrity. 

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