They say peace finally came to Northern Ireland when both sides lost their appetite for killing. Collette McVeigh’s family has not reached that point yet. This makes her a potentially valuable source of information in James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Young Collette was supposed to buy her father a pack of cigarettes, but she sent her brother instead. The bullet that cut short his life would send her down the path of violent terrorism. Even with a child to raise McVeigh stays active in the cause. However, her latest mission is an unqualified disaster. Her bomb fails to detonate, which is somewhat fortunate since she is also pinched by MI-5. Her interrogator, Mac, has a rather awkward talk prepared for her. That bullet that killed her brother? Not British. More to the point, if she ever wants to see her son again, McVeigh must start informing on her high ranking IRA brothers.
Kind of sort of agreeing, McVeigh stalls for time, but Mac forces her to commit. Soon McVeigh navigates the perils of a double life, but her handler looks out for her interests as best he can. Mac is old school. He believes in protecting assets, so he is troubled by the actions of his superior, Kate Fletcher, who seems rather callously disinterested in McVeigh’s safety.
Shadow is bit of a slow starter, but it is a strong closer. Largely (but not completely) de-politicized by Marsh, the film speaks more directly to the mindset of Eric Hoffer’s “true believer” rather than the particularly grievances of the Troubles. Neither side exclusively represents the heroes or the villains. Some individuals are simply more reasonable than others. For instance, McVeigh’s brothers illustrate fanaticism at its worst, while Fletcher personifies Machiavellianism at its most cold blooded.
Marsh is a world class filmmaker, who seems to have a knack for gritty noir material, such as the middle (and best) film of the Red Riding trilogy. In his hands, Shadow Dancer is as much a classical tragedy as it is a thriller. McVeigh and Mac are both pawns trying to assert themselves in a fatally deterministic world. In fact, the film’s pessimism is what really lingers with viewers. Clearly, the terrorist mindset will always opt for blood over an honorable peace. American audiences will also wonder if the aptness of McVeigh’s name was coincidental or intentional.
Clive Owen is fantastic as Mac, balancing his ruthlessness and humanity on a razor’s edge. Likewise, Andrea Riseborough’s McVeigh looks like a stress fracture about to happen. Red is definitely her color, but it is still a bit hard to see her as a potential temptress, which makes the evolution of her relationship with her handler somewhat problematic. While she is not exactly a multidimensional character, as Fletcher, Gillian Anderson also gives an ice queen performance worthy of Kristin Scott Thomas.