Shadow Dancer

Andrew Johnston goes back for a second viewing, and cares even less for James Marsh's troubled characters

When Shadow Dancer premiered at the Belfast Film Festival in May 2012, this reviewer suspected that upon eventual general release it may find itself, er, 'overshadowed' by previous movies about the Troubles.

The glowing write-ups that have greeted James Marsh's film from all quarters over the past week or so suggest I may have got that wrong. Still, after seeing it for a second time, my opinion remains the same.

If Shadow Dancer had come along just five years ago – before the likes of Hunger and Five Minutes of Heaven had said much of what can be said cinematically about Northern Ireland’s bloody past – its tale of the relationship between a female IRA informer and her compromised MI5 handler towards the end of the Troubles would have been a far more enticing prospect.

Of course, wary of limiting its box office chances, Shadow Dancer’s producers would like to convince us that Marsh's gritty thriller is not actually about the Troubles at all, that it could be set anywhere at any time.

In fact, it couldn’t be more Troubles-centric if John McBlain made a cameo appearance as Ian Paisley and the Hole in the Wall Gang popped up every five minutes to provide a Greek chorus.

Perhaps those who didn’t have to live through the bombings and the shootings – Shadow Dancer's director, writer and stars, for instance – aren’t sick of the sight of barricades, burned-out buildings and men in masks carrying guns over one shoulder and massive chips on the other, but many of us in Northern Ireland certainly are.

Yet despite the well-worn nature of the material, director James Marsh, a brilliant filmmaker, keeps things moving along with conviction and style.

The director’s Man on Wire and Project Nim are amongst the more emotionally engaging movies of recent years, especially impressive since they’re documentaries about a tightrope walker and a 'talking' chimp respectively. Marsh has proven just as adept at drama, with his entry in the Red Riding series.

Here, the Truro-born director is aided by a well-cast ensemble, including the always watchable Clive Owen as the MI5 man, Mac, and the chameleon-like Andrea Riseborough, who can go from playing an American socialite in the Madonna-directed WE to becoming the stony-faced 'volunteer', Colette McVeigh.

Riseborough is the breakout star of Shadow Dancer, delivering her lines in a spot-on Belfast brogue from within a pale, lined face that says more than any dialogue ever could.

Elsewhere, Gillian Anderson makes an impression as Owen’s secretive and possibly duplicitous superior, while Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson give solid performances as Colette’s terrorist brothers.

They all take delight in an intelligent screenplay, adapted by former ITN Ireland correspondent Tom Bradby from his own 1998 novel of the same title. It’s a mature script, which doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer.

Oddly, though, as I mentioned in May, Bradby has elected to replace certain real-life characters who feature in the book with superficially fictionalised versions. It’s largely self-defeating, as instead of going, ‘There’s Gerry Adams,’ we now just think, ‘Isn’t that supposed to be Gerry Adams?’

As a flick in its own right, Shadow Dancer is a powerful piece of work. It's exciting and surprising in all the right places. Its web of political intrigue is expertly spun.

It’s just that it has become difficult to care about the increasingly 'stock' characters in this type of film, especially when there were so many 'normal' people doing good and interesting things in Northern Ireland during the 'dark days'.

As flawed as, say, Good Vibrations is, we need more movies along the lines of the recent Terri Hooley biopic than more – ahem – dancing in the shadow of the Troubles.

Shadow Dancer is on general release now.