There’s an old joke about Irish food: you take all your ingredients, put them together in a pot, and then boil until all the flavor is gone. Evidently the makers of Shadow Dancer believe that the same goes for thriller set during the violent endgame of the Troubles. It’s dull, formulaic, and there’s absolutely nothing to distinguish it from any other civil unrest anywhere else in the world.
It’s 1993, and negotiations are underway for the first ceasefire between the various factions in Northern Ireland. At least one cell of the Irish Republican Army is not happy with the terms, so they send Collette (Andrea Riseborough) to plant a bomb on the Underground. But MI5 has been watching Collette for a long time, and they know that despite her family history she’s not really up for all this violence. When she’s captured, the prospect of twenty-five years of prison away form her mother (Brid Brennan) and her young son is enough to convince her to reluctantly agree to become an informant.
Collette returns to her family. Her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) are glad to see her come home safely, but they seem split on sending her in the first place. I say “seem” because there’s very little clearly laid out about what they think. Gerry seems closely aligned with the local IRA leader, Kevin (David Wilmot), but Connor is less sanguine about paramilitary action. Why either brother acts the way he does is largely unexplored.
Meanwhile, there’s tension inside MI5. Collette’s handler, “Mac” (Clive Owen), recruited her at the suggestion of his boss, Kate (Gillian Anderson), but right away he’s cut out of important discussions that directly impact his agent’s safety. It seems that there’s something else going on, but information about this mystery comes in unsatisfying fits and starts.
Director James Marsh is mostly famous for winning an Academy Award for directing the documentary Man On Wire. But where that film centered around an outsize, engaging personality, almost nobody here has a personality at all. Motivations are sketchy at best, and only introduced when absolutely required. We get one scene at the beginning that digs into Collette’s background, but we could use a lot more, explaining how she — and by the extension the IRA in general — came to this point.
And that goes to the heart of the problem with Tom Bradby’s screenplay. A political news editor, he brags that he has no coherent political viewpoint. But if he sees things like the Troubles as a flat collection of facts, there’s no feature on which to build understanding. Someone with no political viewpoint is uniquely unqualified to talk about, understand, and explain people with extreme political viewpoints.
We know nothing about Collette’s motivations because, like the Troubles themselves, they extend back over decades of history, even long before she was born. Reducing her actions to mere facts makes the tension in Northern Ireland indistinguishable from the same story told in Palestine, or in an American militia, or in any other homegrown unrest. They’re all just facts, with no history to differentiate them, and no context that might allow us to understand the players.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.