Friday, August 24, 2012

'Shadow Dancer' (2012) directed by James Marsh, 24th August 2012

'Shadow Dancer' is a film full of people making difficult choices.  Choosing between logic and emotion, between their family and their politics and ultimately between sacrifice and preservation.  Primarily set in Belfast (though filmed in Dublin) in 1993, we follow the story of Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), and her involvement with both the IRA and MI5.  Born into a staunchly republican family, she's fuelled by passion and grief as a result of seeing family members killed in the conflict.  In the opening scenes she's involved in an abortive attack on the London Underground and subsequently captured by Mac (Clive Owen), an MI5 agent.  He offers her a stark choice, work for us, or spend the rest of your life in prison.

It is the consequences of this decision that propel the rest of the film forwards.  Marsh maintains a fairly close focus on Colette, and we watch as she's silently torn apart by guilt, fear and anger.  Andrea Riseborough portrays this turmoil raging inside her very effectively, and our complicity in her situation ratchets up the tension.  Every conversation or intimate family moment is shot through with the fear of discovery.  

Mac (Clive Owen) and Colette (Andrea Riseborough)
Almost from the off, Colette is stuck between two worlds, and her allegiance to both of them is tenuous.  Whilst her family is firmly and actively involved in the IRA, it seems that her passion for republican politics has cooled upon becoming a mother.  Her son is her emotional weak spot, and both sides exploit it for all its worth.  While she has absolutely no allegiance to the British Government, Mac as an individual seems like a kind and caring man, who assures her that none of his informers have ever come to harm.  He also dangles the possibility of a witness relocation programme and a new identity for her and her son in front of her.  A tantalising prospect for someone who seems unavoidably entangled in the social web of the IRA.  The film is notable by its absence of father figures; both Colette's father and the father of her child are conspicuously absent and on some level, Mac seems to become the nearest thing she's got to a supportive male in her life.  He's the only person she can confide in, and the only person she can now speak to without worrying about what she says.

Watching a conflict that takes place in a recognisably British social landscape, with red telephone boxes, British police uniforms and terraced housing seems to ground this conflict.  When we see a family sitting around in a recognisably British house discussing an assassination attempt, or being shouted at by armed British policemen with machine guns it forces us to remember that these events took place on British soil.  It's an incredibly intimate conflict.  As writer Tom Bradby told us in a Q&A after the film, "this is a conflict between people that spoke the same language, ate the same food, watched the same TV shows".

James Marsh seems to have gone out of his way to create a restrained, austere film.  The film is almost unbearably slow-burning at points, although Marsh maintains an undercurrent of tension throughout through long tracking shots and the use of mobile handheld cameras.  In a wonderful sequence at the beginning we see Colette boarding a Tube in London, and the camera remains fixed on her blank face as she travels through the tunnels.  Where is she going?  What is she doing? What's in that bag? Is that someone following her?  As she winds her way through a maze of tunnels and deep into the infrastructure of the London Underground we hear muffled evacuation warnings.   A shot in this sequence, of Colette gazing up from the dirty, dark underworld at the clear blue sky high above her, inaccessible and covered by a grate seems emblematic of her story.

The events of this film are inexorably propelled forward by politics, although they seem extremely distant.  Occuring faintly in the backdrop, glimpsed on television news is the Downing Street Declaration, jointly declared by British Prime Minister John Major, and the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Albert Reynolds.  This declaration affirmed the right of the people of Ireland to self-determination.  It's a momentous political moment, and provided the impetus for the ceasefires of 1994.  But, this all takes place far in the background, and seems very distant from the emotional conflicts of our characters.

Colette and her family, Gerry (Aiden Gillen), Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ma (Brid Brennan)
Bradby declared in the post film Q&A that he and director James Marsh had sought to "drain the politics out of the film".  It's an interesting decision to take, and one which they've done with almost too much gusto.  The ideology and philosophy, even the basic goal of the IRA - to create a united Ireland - isn't spelled out at all.  This leaves the film with a vacuum at the centre.  It would be difficult for British audiences to come into this film without any knowledge of the conflict in Northern Ireland, but I can't help but wonder what international audiences would make of it.  The rationale for this decision to scrub any direct political discussion from the film is that this is a character drama, and not an analytical argument about politics.  Marsh and Bradby go out of their way not to take sides and paint both the IRA and MI5 as being equally murky, each with little regard for an individual human life in the 'big picture'.

While watching the film, I was repeatedly reminded of 'The Battle of Algiers' (1966).  In both films we see an underground revolutionary force taking on the might of an established military power.  We see politics and warfare invade the domestic sphere, and the consequences of asymmetrical warfare on both sides.  There is a famous sequence in the '66 film that shows women carrying bombs through security checkpoints and detonating them in public places that is strongly reminiscent of scenes in 'Shadow Dancer'.  I see 'The Battle of Algiers' as the superior film, as it manages to marry politics successfully to a character-based narrative.  'Battle' was controversial on release, and was intensely criticised for the sympathetic treatment of the FLN revolutionaries in a conflict that took place a decade before the film's release.  So, after twenty years, is it too soon to try and address the ideological conflict at the heart of the Northern Ireland conflict?  The character-based drama in this film is gripping and intense, but without exploring why tensions are so high it feels ever so slightly shallow.  

Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson)
Despite my uneasiness at these important yet unexplored aspects, this film does work amazingly well as a thriller.  There are several high-tension scenes where Marsh expertly ratchets up the tension by cutting around to show simultaneous events.  One of them almost approaches a Hitchcockian atmosphere.  We cut between Colette desperately and quietly trying to get through to Mac on a room, while an IRA gunman she's working with tries to find out where she is.  We're not quite sure where in the small house Colette is, and every door he opens could be the one she's hiding behind.  Another credit to the director is his trust that the audience is paying attention, and can be trusted to connect the dots themselves without things being spelled out.  There's an interrogation scene mid-way through the film, and as we're led through the corridors we glimpse a man rolling a plastic sheet out on the floor in one of the rooms.  After the interrogation we see him rolling it back up.  The implication is clear; if the wrong answers were given the verdict was a quick death.

These sorts of moments occur quite frequently in the film, and it rewards a viewer that pays attention.  Often we will be shown documents that both camera and character will glance at, and we'll be expected to draw our own conclusions.  The fact that we both reliably deduce what the important information is, and what the character's reaction to it will be is a credit to the Bradby's script and Marsh's direction.  There are surprising twists and turns in the plot, but they always feel like a logical and appropriate direction for the story to take.

While Riseborough and Owen are both excellent, the film is buoyed by some fantastic supporting performances.  Two stand-outs are David Wilmot as IRA enforcer (and torturer) Kevin Mulville.   The aura of menace that surrounds him is palpable, and even before we know what his job is we feel repelled by him purely as a result of the way the central family react to his presence.  He's treated like a bad smell, is repeatedly verbally abused and ordered out of houses.  What Wilmot manages to do here is to imbue this violent, repulsive man with an essential sadness.  His presence silently standing outside the house is an omen of death, and yet while he's torturing suspected MI5 informers he never takes an iota of sadistic pleasure from it.  You get the feeling that he sees his job as unpleasant, depressing and cruel, but ultimately a necessary evil.  It's his cross to bear, he acts like he feels that if he wasn't doing this job, it could be someone far worse.

Taking a similar role on the side of MI5 is Gillian Anderson's Kate Fletcher.  She, like the IRA enforcer is a utilitarian realist.  Both of them like to think they keep the bigger picture in mind, and if individuals have to die to further these goals it is sad, but for the greater good.  The difference between the character's couldn't be more visually different.  Fletcher is surrounded by computers, in a relatively clean and modern (for 1993) office.  When we see her home it is, as one audience member described it, 'like a Barrett showhome'.  Stepping into her personal world is a bit jarring; the rest of the film is set in grubby, run down council housing and disused condemned flats.  This difference in surroundings emphasises the detachment and ultraprofessionalism of Fletcher.  She genuinely sees this as a job, and  seems to consider herself free of ideology.  Anderson scarily conveys this self-assurance, and the way in which she effortlessly rids herself of emotion even when weighing up the lives of people is quite chilling.

One factor in the film that was mentioned during discussions afterwards was the bright red coat that Colette wears throughout the film.  In a washed out colour palette this coat jumps off the screen, making her stand out in nearly every outdoor scene.  Logically, it'd be a bit silly to wear such a recognisable coat if she's engaging in clandestine behaviour, she stands out like a sore thumb from a distance.  I think Marsh was conscious of this, and decided to make this item of clothing an external representation of the character's fractured psychology.  As she informs on friends and family she begins to feel increasingly exposed, and this costume decision visually outlines that for the audience, explicitly painting her as vulnerable and as a target. 

I deeply enjoyed this film as a straight, tense thriller.  On those grounds it works brilliantly, all the characters are neatly defined and manage to act unpredictably, yet in retrospect, consistently. A difficult writing trick to pull off.  The direction is always confident, relying on an attentive, intelligent audience willing to emotionally engage with the leads.  But, in a film where so much revolves around the effects of politics and policy, it suffers from the decision to excise any examination of it.  It's a frustrating criticism to make, as a shift in focus onto ideology would necessarily detract from the focus on character and arguably make the film worse narratively.  But "draining" the film of politics seems to me like the easy way out; a way to pre-emptively defuse any controversy about the wider implications of the film's events.  I'd rather see a film that attempts to tackle big issues at the expense of the narrative, rather than one which ignores them and, as a result succeeds.

With this in mind, though the film thrills and entertains, it ultimately feels slightly hollow.

'Shadow Dancer' is on general release from the 24th of August 2012.

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