London, 1993. A waxen young woman stands in silence at an underground railway platform. She homes in on a man on the opposite platform. Her eyes widen. As the Tube arrives, she scurries toward the exit, ditching her bag on the steps. After sneaking through a tunnel, the mark emerges in an alleyway. Two large men surface and shove her into an unmarked car.
The woman is Colette McVeigh. She is a terrorist.
Colette, played by Andrea Riseborough, is the protagonist of Shadow Dancer—a film directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh, of Man on Wire fame. After the botched bombing attempt, Colette is offered a choice: spend 25 years in prison and lose custody of her young son, or become an MI5 informant tasked with spying on her IRA-affiliated family. What transpires is a slow-burning thriller that’s part The Lives of Others and part Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as Colette vacillates between filial duty and tenderfoot tipster, reporting her findings to Mac (Clive Owen), the MI5 officer assigned to protect her.
Whereas films like Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own exploited the Troubles, using the 30-plus-year ethnonationalist conflict as a convenient backdrop for banal action fare—and a showcase for mangled oy-rish accents—Marsh’s film eschews strident hails of gunfire in favor of a complex interior-drama that explores themes of family, loyalty, and cultural identity.
“I was trying to find a fascinating language within the quotidian—to eke out dramatics within smaller units and set pieces,” said Marsh. “We sought to create genuine suspense within the character’s choices.”
In order to create a sense of alienation, Colette dresses in a blood-red trench coat, providing a harsh juxtaposition with the bleak Belfast surroundings—as if this fragile creature could be swallowed up at any moment. It’s a fascinating visual motif that conjures comparisons with the young, wandering girl cloaked in red in Schindler’s List. Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie inspired the costume, according to Marsh.
Principal photography on Shadow Dancer took place over seven weeks in Dublin, which doubled for Belfast. They’d film from Monday to Friday and have weekends off; Riseborough would spend her free time taking the two-hour train up to Belfast to take in the surroundings.
“When I originally received the script, Colette talked a lot,” said Riseborough. “The more time I spent in Belfast, the more I realized that it was something that never sat in me very well. Her strength was in her silence, so I came to James with the idea to pare down what she said and communicate with my eyes.”
“I lived in New York in the wake of 9/11 and thought, OK, it’s become like London now in the ’80s and ’90s, where every trash can is suspicious.”
The Troubles was a conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the 1960s until the late-90s, and concerned Protestant unionists and loyalists, and Catholic nationalists. The unionists, who represented the majority, wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, while the nationalists fought for a united Ireland. Paramilitary groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) clashed with the British Army and Ulster Volunteer Force—a loyalist faction.
The late Margaret Thatcher ruled during the height of the conflict, including the 1981 Irish hunger strike and the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing—an assassination attempt on the prime minister that took the lives of five people, including a member of Parliament.
“Thatcher definitely entrenched the conflict,” said Marsh. “There was no peace process when Mrs. Thatcher was prime minister. It was ‘us vs. them,’ and ‘we need to kill or imprison them all.’ Mrs. Thatcher was vengeful in going after people who disagreed with her. She was a repressed, uptight, puritanical right-wing ideologue, and it blighted many people’s lives, including mine. She took away people’s future. The death of a senile old lady is not a tragedy in any way, and I feel the same way about her in death that I did in life.”
Clive Owen, who also lived in London during the Thatcher regime, wasn’t the biggest fan of the Iron Lady, either.
“I come from a very working-class family and was unemployed for a number of years during her time, so I wasn’t a Thatcherite,” he says. “Those years were tough times for a lot of people.”
The violence during the Troubles often spilled into England and the streets of London, creating an atmosphere of terror not dissimilar to the current one, where the threat is ever-present, and a British soldier in Woolwich can be hacked to pieces in broad daylight by two men brandishing knives and meat cleavers. The Woolwich killing was actually the third terrorist event to happen in the area. During the early 1970s, the IRA planted two pub bombs in Woolwich at establishments frequented by British soldiers.
“You lose your innocence,” said Marsh. “I lived in New York in the wake of 9/11 and thought, OK, it’s become like London now in the ’80s and ’90s, where every trash can is suspicious.”
“You feel the threat of terrorism is all over, and I’m bringing my kids into a world where it will be there,” adds Owen. “It was more specific then—and was specific to the U.K.—so it felt a bit less random then it does now.”
But the most trying of circumstances also reveals one’s inner humanity. As the walls begin to close in on Colette, she takes solace in Mac, who is willing to sacrifice all to ensure that her son has a future, and doesn’t follow in her family’s footsteps.
“That’s what I find fascinating about human beings,” said Riseborough. “In this bleak landscape, both characters have this conviction and hope. He has the hope that he can save her, and therefore save himself, and she has a hope that there’s a better way for her family, and for her people.”