*DISCLAIMER: I am writing about the film with an approach to critical analysis with only a hint of review, therefore there are spoilers within if you have not seen the film. This post serves as a line of thought that I am archiving for later development.*
It appears that reviews of Shadow Dancer (Marsh, 2012) have not been entirely complimentary, as far as I am aware (I am deliberately avoiding them so feel free to correct me), and seem largely to have been written by men. The film is much more than critics and general commenters deem it to be (e.g. one I came across stated that this is yet another Troubles film making the IRA out to be scum). Shadow Dancer does not attempt to depict the Northern Ireland conflict through a microcosmic narrative, rather it draws out a suppressed individual struggle within patriarchal organizations, and in doing so attempts to reflect the hidden lives many were forced to lead.
The most striking aspect of Shadow Dancer for me is its evocation of the difficulty concerning Irish Republican feminism. When Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is reminded that a volunteer is never off duty she responds with ‘neither’s a mummy’. Collette lives with the guilt of feeling responsible for her little brother’s unintentional murder during their childhood in the 1970s when she sent him on an errand given to her by her father (Michael McElhatten) during which the boy was shot. Collette is all too aware that the bullet could have meant her end, but was too consumed in making jewellery – in creating a self-image and making herself look more appealing – to run to the shop. From her father’s disdainful look after Jimmy’s (Bradley Burke) moment of death we know that he blames her and feels the place of his dead son ought to be occupied by her. Catching up with her in 1993 we find she is a member of the ‘organization’, a family business involving her remaining brothers Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) and immediate community. Yet it is a role in which she does not wholeheartedly participate and deliberately fails in her active missions on a regular basis. She largely values life, particularly of those closest to her (whom she will do what it takes to defend and avenge), but also of those who, like her, have no personal reason to hate the ‘other’. Furthermore, a problematic aspect of the McVeigh family’s involvement with the organization is something revealed in MI5 intelligence that operative Mac (Clive Owen) shares with Collette in a bid to enlist her cooperation as an informant, specifically the forensic evidence that the bullet which killed her brother was fired from a suspected IRA weapon, suggesting he was caught in crossfire from his ‘own side’. It is Collette’s many internal conflicts stemming from this incident that determine the narrative, not the typical ‘them against us’ we see time and again in so-called 'Troubles' films.
The film, supported by the Irish Film Board, BBC Films and the National Lottery, was adapted from the novel of the same title by Tom Bradby who also wrote the screenplay. It was filmed largely on location in Dublin and set in Belfast and London in 1993 during the lead up to the 1994 IRA ceasefire. The film has a considered mise en scène, including the colours in Collette’s attire. When she is firmly a Republican terrorist involved in bomb plants, even purposely ineffectual ones, she wears a dark shade of greenish blue (certainly not royal), but when in collusion with British Security Forces, red features. There is an obvious contrast here with the colours of the Irish tricolour to which she ought to be affiliated. Her donning of the colonial state’s colour scheme mirrors her reluctant involvement with the ‘organization’, which exudes a more familial and community loyalty or duty than belief in a cause. However, the letter/phone-box red also reflects Collette’s innate sexuality, which is confirmed by her role as a single mother and forbidden attraction to her MI5 contact, Mac. This sexuality along with general active participation by women in the conflict is a long held silence that is only recently finding a voice, mainly through the outlets of creative platforms.
Shadow Dancer presents many issues stemming from the Northern Ireland conflict, but for me the main one is the role of the mother. This film subverts typical perceptions of this identity as passive and domestic by culminating in the surprising knowledge (the film’s genre could easily be classed as a thriller) that the family’s matriarch (Brid Brennan) is the mystery police informant unwittingly undermining her daughter’s position in that same role, both of whom cross this boundary in an attempt to save their sons. The other strong female character is Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) who is in a position of power in MI5, and is also a mother, notably a middle-class one. Indeed the domestic settings attributed to the McVeigh and Fletcher matriarchs are poles apart, and yet both are spaces where they exact control over the males in their lives.
Many psychological issues are raised in the film, stemming from that old Freudian favourite of the sins of the father. Collette’s father does not disguise the fact that he immediately blames her for her brother’s violent death, and she carries the burden of guilt long after, we presume, her father’s demise (he is simply absent without reference after the prologue; all we know for certain about him is that he was a heavy smoker). Collette’s imposed guilt complex is perhaps implied in her clearly difficult relationships with men in general. She is a single mother, has little familial communication with her brothers, and seems largely cold except with her son, who we see shunning her in his first scene. We find that he resents her trips away and most likely has abandonment issues rooted in genuine fear, an anxiety which is manifested in his frequent bedwetting. The inciting incident for these percolating tensions is in fact caused by the war of men – the war between two patriarchies – and not the self-interest of a female child responding in isolation to the very male world surrounding her.
In addition to difficulties and betrayals among gendered hierarchies, the film deals with internal conflicts within the organizational systems. Fletcher, Mac’s commanding officer, reminds him that they are playing for the same team, yet their actions lead to a different kind of internal warfare. This is mirrored in Gerry’s objections to the IRA leadership’s decision to go ahead with the impending ceasefire, as well as Connor’s torture at the hands of Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot), the family’s commanding officer, and his threatening behaviour towards Collette in order to find the tout he is determined to smoke out, not considering for a moment that it could be the McVeighs’ mild-mannered mother. Moreover, Mac’s renegade investigation leads him to uncover a dangerous secret long held by those in authority over him, the release of which has fatal consequences. Given that the film takes lengths to reveal internal corruption and conspiracy within both organizations, neither can claim moral high ground over the other – they are equalled by their iniquity.
General observations on Shadow Dancer include the serendipity of the typically overcast Irish weather giving a stark, bleak clarity to its many outdoor scenes. I rarely gush about dramatic aspects, but the cast and acting are beautifully superb. The sound design is impressive; the very real procedures of members of security forces having to check their vehicles for bombs is iterated early – as is the sense of its everyday banality – and the covert passing of the gun to transform family friend Brendan’s (Martin McCann) civilian funeral into a military one both lead to violent actions. Although expected, the sounds of the bomb blast that proves fatal for Mack and the gunfire salute to a fallen comrade are shockingly visceral, particularly in an otherwise restrained audio track. Finally, the film’s title, which turns out to be ‘Ma’ McVeigh’s MI5 code name, aptly and succinctly describes the role of many women during the Troubles who were active in their endeavours, whatever those may have been, but were confined to the shadows of an overtly male struggle.