Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Shadow Dancer

So, there's this guy I see at the Kendall Square 'plex every few weeks, often winding up in the same theater I do because if you go to the movies often enough, you'll be seeing a lot of movies opening weekend, and so your paths will cross with the other frequent cinemagoers. We've had the same conversation a few times, involving him asking me if I see a lot of movies and how they play a lot of good movies here. It's a short conversation, because I'm not really a gregarious guy. Anyway, this time he wound up seated two seats away from me, with a big bag full of lunch, and he actually got a flashlight out while the movie was running to rummage around in it and brush his crumbs off and such. Poor form, guy, way worse than the seniors on my other side who had to fill every moment between previews (and a few quiet moments in the film) with talk.

Anyway, he buttonholed me afterward (he had a big old cane and needed someone to find the Diet Coke he dropped midway through the movie) and started asking questions. Not necessarily bad questions, although he didn't get to the ones that were really worth discussing. Since they tend to involve the end of the movie, I'm going to talk about them after the review.

Anyway, it's sort of a weird thing - as much as I go to the movies in the theater in large part to experience it with a crowd of strangers, I don't necessarily want to talk to them, and I'm sorry if I came across as brusque or rude to this guy. But, still - he had a flashlight!

Now, here's hoping that I don't wake up tomorrow and find a note from the EFC contributor who lives in Northern Ireland saying I don't know what the heck I'm talking about!

Shadow Dancer

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 June 2013 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run, DCP)

There's a twenty-year jump early in Shadow Dancer, from 1973 to 1993, and another twenty years between then and the present day, and there's something appealing about that sort of symmetry, especially with the reminders in the background that this was sort of a turning point in the area's history. What's left of the Provisional Irish Republican Army is pretty quiet these days (at least, not in America), and it makes me wonder if the events of this nifty little spy story feel closer to the past or the present.

What happened in 1973 certainly had an impact on Collette McVeigh; when we see her in 1993 (Andrea Riseborough), she's taking a trip to London, eventually dropping a satchel in the middle of the Underground. The cops are on to her, though, and she's offered a deal: Spy on the IRA cell that includes her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhall Gleeson), and she an go back to living quietly with her mother (Brid Brennan) and son (Cathal Maguire). She reluctantly agrees, but she's attracted the attention of IRA ratcatcher Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot); meanwhile, her handler Mac (Clive Owen) discovers that his supervisor (Gillian Anderson) has not briefed him on the entire operation.

Shadow Dancer is a fairly short movie, but it's just big enough to have multiple angles, shifting its focus from chess match to questions of personal loyalty for both Collette and Mac and back again so that even though the two are intertwined, the audience can focus on one or the other in a given moment. It's a delicate balancing act, especially once the director James Marsh and writer Tom Bradby (who penned both the screenplay and the novel it was based upon) pull away from the walls tightening on Collette and move on to dropping some revelations and reversals on the audience. It's the sort of twisting that can leave some in the audience confused as the movie ends, but is still quite satisfying, especially as the actions of relatively minor characters seem more important in hindsight.

Full review on EFC


The movie does merit a little discussion of the details that may not be clear. I kind of think the questions this guy wanted answers to were more or less irrelevant, but there's something underneath that bugs me.

First question: Who actually killed Collette's brother in 1973, which arguably set her on the Republican path? My answer was "it doesn't matter", and it really doesn't - Collette thought it was the Brits, Mac showed her evidence that it was IRA friendly-fire to try and turn her, but who cares? Each fact did its job of motivating Collette, and while I don't know that MI-5 could have faked the evidence convincingly in 1993, it almost doesn't matter: In 1973, who actually fired the shot that killed Sean wasn't as important as the fat that a fight for which she blamed the British took him, and in 1993, the fact that Mac used it was crass.

Second question: Why did the PIRA kill Mac with the car bomb? Well, I don't figure they need any reason beyond him being MI-5, and when the PIRA knew where one of those guys was going to be, he got a bomb in his car. I suppose, technically, they might have been covering up some loose ends - he was the only one who could figure out that Collette was a double agent, thus leaving her out of danger - but it might just have been a crime of opportunity. Or, alternately, Collette feeding the PIRA where and when a British spy would be could be her price for not ending up with a bullet in the head like her mother.

I don't think the latter is the case - these guys don't seem like the types to consider her books balanced against Brendan's death just because she gave up one Brit. But if it's not, that means she was a double agent all along. I'm pretty sure that's what the idea of the film was, and in fact, they pretty much lay the possibility out right in the beginning with Mac describing how she might have deliberately not set the bomb's timer (or subconsciously not done so). Of course, he's just arrogant enough to think that's because she doesn't have it in her to be a killer or that she (like her mother presumably does) sees this as a way to hasten the end of the conflict, when, instead, she's trying to gain his trust in the hopes of shaking the real traitor loose.

And... I don't know if that makes a whole lot of sense. On the one hand, it seems like something of a high-risk move on the IRA's part; if it doesn't work, then Collette's in jail and for what? If she gets someone like Kate as her handler who can't be easily manipulated, they're similarly out of luck (although maybe they can eventually use Collette to send false information, so it's not a total loss). Plus, if you figure that this is ultimately Kevin Mulville's plan, he certainly seems to go through a lot of theater to pretend that he really thinks Collette is a traitor. Then again, I don't know if he ever does so when it's just the two of them.

It works, I guess, but I suppose I'd have to give it a second viewing to see if it really fits together, or whether important bits are just being played out for the cinema audience. That's always a tricky thing with stories that rely on this sort of misdirection, and while I think it's more likely than not everything holds together, that's more a 60% level of certainty than a 90% one.



Bob H. said...

I appreciate your willingness to try to get into the heads of the writers, and to get that some of what happened may have been for the sake of the movie goer vs, for the sake of the "story".
I have another thought for you (assuming the story is integrated, and not just for the sake of a neat ending): Maybe, as you say, the IRA just killed Mac because they knew where he'd be, and that's what they do. But unless I missed a line, how would they know where he'd be unless Colette told them? Which to me raises the next, deeper question--why did Colette tell them? My guess would be as revenge for the Brits killing her Mom. Unless of course they had noticed Mac and Colette's meetings all along (I mean, come on, they meet in a public place a whole bunch of times, and nobody ever thought to tell the IRA about it?)

Jason said...

I do think that what we're supposed to take from this is that all the while Mac thought he was running Colette, she was running him. Killing Mac was probably always in the cards, but until they had the name of the traitor, he was still useful.

Anonymous said...

Bob, I don't think the Brits were the ones who killed her mum. Didn't her mother go off with Kevin in the car? However, I think Colette turned Mac in.

Anonymous said...

Guys I'm still confused who's killed her MOM ? I couldn't understand the discussion between Collette and her brother in the final scene.
I need to this movie again.

Anonymous said...

How did the IRA know that the mom was a mole? Remember we only learn of her being a mole when Mac calls her and tells her they recruited her daughter to protect her. The IRA didn't know anything either which is why they were interrogating everyone. When they came to interrogate the mom, she came out and got into their car, they didn't know she was a mole. She must have admitted it to them in order to protect her daughter, and that's when they took her out to a field and executed her.

When Colette got into the car and the end, she asked her brother by name and he responds with "it's done", meaning that she told them where Mac was going to be, as revenge for her mother's death and perhaps to cover up her own story; to convince the IRA that Mac was her mom's handler rather than her's.

Anonymous said...


Biggest problem for me is if the mother had been working for intelligence since 1982 why had the provos not suspected anything before ? and if they did and Colette was a double agent why did they interrogate her ?

Anonymous said...

I saw this tale from Colette's point of view.
Her world was shattered when her brother died and then her father closed her out. From then on she was a survivor.
Her mother turned informer about a decade later.
For another decade she survived in a household with IRA assassins and a British informer.
Then she gets caught in London. Her street sense alerts her to the surveillance so she abandons the mission and attempts to disappear into the city [she does the same later when the assassination is foiled]. This is how she has survived.
Her boy is the only true love she has in this world and MI5 uses him to turn her informant.
Her MI5 handler, Mac, figures out that his informant is disposable and digs [his career, self-esteem, and survival - which he fails to understand - are on the line] to find out why. Turns out his boss is covering her own informer [and her job] with his.
His boss' informer is Colette's mother. So, he chooses to give her the choice.
The mother turns herself over to the IRA and takes the bullet to protect her daughter and grandson [who are her sources of love].
Colette sees her chance to escape the troubles [with her boy] and trades Mac for her chance. Mac had broke his promise. Or he paid for it with his life...
Colette survived. She is exquisite.
We need a sequel.

Anonymous said...

: ) Reading all prior comments I love how when we like a film... we toil to justify loose ends: the death of Mac-Clive Owen does not make sense. Mac promised M15 would provide Collette with a new identity and life... if her life were in danger. By uncovering who the real mole was Collette's life recovers its safety before the IRA gang, hence no need to liquidate Mac.

In addition, she had not fulfilled her part of the bargain (to provide a bunch of information or IRA tentative attacks).

Also the commentator of 2/28/2014 writes that she tells her brother about the rendezvous place to kill him... Why wouldn't the brother/IRA question her about her knowing where and when an agent is going to be?? Wouldn't that make her suspicious?

Likewise, Collette's ambivalence towards killings during the whole movie (we never see her in a determined, no remorse terrorist type of character) makes it implausible for her to turn into a killer against someone who was protecting her from everybody (the IRA who was rounding her and the M15 bosses).


Anonymous said...

Just watched Shadow Dancer (SBS On Demand in Australia) and searched to see if my understanding of this movie matched other peoples. I agree with most of the comments from 10/10/2016.

The film should be viewed from Colletta's perspective. A single mother living a hand-to-mouth existence with her mother and brothers in grim early 1990's Belfast. There are expectations on her to support the IRA but her chief concern is with her family.

I think it was Colletta's first bombing trip to London and she couldn't go through with it. But how did MI5 know her movements? She had left her child at home - did her mother inform MI5 in the hope of protecting her (probably not). We later learn that Mac's boss was certainly aware of her identity...and was willing to use (abuse) her.

Late in the movie after the phone call from Mac, I believe Colletta's mother turned herself into the IRA to protect her daughter, even knowing that the consequence was her own death. A very proud and devoted woman also caught up in the whole IRA/British mess.

For the possibility of a new life with her son away from the killings, Colletta informs on Mac (probably telling the IRA that her mother told her that Mac was her mother's handler). A comfortless tale of life's struggle.


Anonymous said...

So if you look at this differently, Maybe the IRA knew they had a mole. In the movie, we are told that they have suspected for some time. Maybe the plan all along was to have Colletta turned into an agent for the Brits, only so that the IRA could determine who the original Mole was. Collette and her brother might have been in the know the whole time. Mulville has been looking for the tout for some time we are told "They're hunting a tout
in Gerry McVeigh's crowd, right?
Have been for a while?
Maybe a year."
So everyone knows's it can't be Collette, but maybe Gerry knows the only way to find the tout is to have a double agent, not tell Mulville, have him hunt and put the heat on Collette so that they have to burn Collette or do something to protect the current tout. It has to look real for the real tout and for the Brits, Maybe Mulville knows... and again.. they have to put on a good show for everyone.

this puts new meaning into the Kiss, kinda God Father like.

Catherine said...

I think you've got it right!

Anonymous said...

Ha! I agree with your view on this film it makes sense!

Anonymous said...

Still not completely convinced why Mac was killed

Anonymous said...

Re watched the ending after Colletta was told it’s done she showed remorse saddened its written all over her face she had it done