A young woman boards a London underground train, carrying a bag which we infer may contain a bomb. We know she is Irish, from a family profoundly affected by paramilitary and British Army violence. At the next stop, she gets off the train, discretely dumps the bag in a stairwell and runs. It is 1993.
As the film unfolds, the woman, Colette (Andrea Riseborough), is caught by British counter-terrorism officers and taken to be questioned by Mac (Clive Owen), who persuades her to turn informer. This Hobson’s choice between a life in prison away from her young son or death at the hands of the IRA for her betrayal encapsulates the essence of the character. She is a terrorist, and yet you can’t help but sympathise with Colette – growing up a Catholic in Belfast, losing one brother to crossfire and having two others heavily involved in paramilitary activity has led Colette to get on a train carrying a bomb, to consider carrying out that kind of violence. She is a quick, intelligent woman who makes her own decisions, but sometimes there is no good choice to be made. As she has learnt, once you get into both the IRA and the British secret service, you don’t get out lightly.
Riseborough is superb in the central role, barely uttering two sentences together and yet painting a character of extraordinary depth and subtlety. The whole film crackles with tension, close-ups and heavy camera movements within claustrophobic settings creating a stifling atmosphere of guilt and suspicion. The greys and browns of worn-down Belfast, of staid sitting rooms and politically divided pubs, are broken only by the bright red of Colette’s coat and the occasional Irish flag fluttering in the breeze. While terrorism and political conflict are the context and the motivators for the film, it neither explicitly condones nor outright condemns the characters’ actions. The focus is rather on the psychological impact of informing, of handling an informer, and of the intense ties of loyalty and pride that bind people together. Even in such a starkly polarised conflict the lines are blurred – Mac, introduced to us as in control, the boss, is shown to be in the dark about the games being played by his superiors; Colette’s brothers and mother have other allegiances and the family doesn’t always come first.
Shadow Dancer is a deeply unsettling thriller – complex, intuitive and troubling, it delves into the incredible complexities of the conflict in Northern Ireland, as well as of community ties, and the secrets and lies even a close family keep from each other. The subject matter is still very much an open wound, if gradually healing, and there is no political tub-thumping. Here the horrors of terrorism and armed conflict are very much interior, the scars left on the mind as deep and painful as the physical ones. Director James Marsh offers no easy answers, but the ending plays out with a certain grim inevitability that I felt, rather than saw, coming. During the final scenes, so intensely genuine do they feel, I had without realising balled my fists and clenched my muscles in bleak anticipation. Films like this are the finest argument against 3D cinema and flashy gimmicks; no amount of special glasses and swirling projections could have made me feel more utterly absorbed into the world of the film as I did at that moment. An incredible piece of work and the perfect antidote to blockbuster silly season.