✩✩ ATCHING Shadow Dancer, a brilliant IRA thriller directed by James Marsh, I kept wondering why the story seemed familiar. Where had I seen this before? The best IRA film I know was Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, the true story of an accused IRA bomber wrongly imprisoned by the British. But while Sheridan’s film was certainly a powerful drama, it wasn’t exactly a thriller. Then it struck me.
In Notorious, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, Ingrid Bergman plays the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who is persuaded by Cary Grant to infiltrate a household in Rio de Janeiro and report on the activities of a German spy ring. More than that, Bergman must marry the Nazi spymaster, played with his usual oily charm by Claude Rains. There is many a nerve-racking scene when Bergman, in constant danger of discovery, risks her life to play out her double-crossing game.
Bergman’s dilemma is much like the one confronting Colette McVeigh, the tormented heroine of Shadow Dancer. Marvellously played by Andrea Riseborough, Colette is a single mother, loyal to the republican cause, living in Belfast with her mother and two brothers, both hardline IRA men. The year is 1993 and John Major’s peace initiatives are under way. To sabotage any peace agreement with the British, Colette is assigned to plant a bomb in a London underground station.
She leaves a shopping bag containing the bomb on a staircase (forgetting to set the timer) and makes a hurried escape through an emergency exit, only to be nabbed by two British cops. An impassive MI5 agent, known to us only as Mac (and played with grim inscrutability by Clive Owen), offers Colette a deal: she can spend 25 years in jail for her part in the bomb plot or she can return to Belfast and spy on her family. Reluctantly, and for the sake of her small son Mark, she chooses the role of informer.
Owen may not be as handsome as Cary Grant, but in his implacable, taciturn way he’s no less charismatic, and the sexual chemistry between Mac and Colette gives this electrifying story an added emotional charge. It’s not long before Colette’s brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domnhall Gleeson) find more dangerous work for her, and it’s not long before Kevin, the local IRA enforcer (David Wilmot), grows suspicious of Colette’s behaviour. In the days before mobile phones it wasn’t easy to make a surreptitious phone call without a furtive retreat to one’s room or a conspicuous appearance in a public phone box.
The mood of the period — a Belfast of wintry quaysides, soulless council housing and the endless checking of cars for hidden explosives — is caught with dispiriting clarity.
Marsh made two excellent documentaries — Man on a Wire and Project Nim — both of which I praised in these pages. His feeling for suspense and his instinct for solid, well-plotted storytelling serve him well. The first half-hour of Shadow Dancer has some of the most gripping sequences I can remember; and while things slacken a little during the rest of the film, the story never loses its way.
There are no partisan politics here. Marsh and his screenwriter Tom Bradby (a TV journalist in Northern Ireland in the 1990s) revel in the deviousness and double-dealing on both sides. It’s hard to trust anyone in the IRA; and who knows what high-level government intrigue is afoot when Mac’s boss at MI5 (a breezy, no-nonsense Gillian Anderson) blocks his computer access to vital information? I call Shadow Dancer a political thriller, and so it is. But it works so well as a thriller that the politics scarcely matter. Colette could just as easily be infiltrating a mafia cell or a Nazi spy ring. The desolating twists at the end come almost as a relief, a deliverance from a frightening world of cynicism and treachery. CONTRARY to my expectations, Wuthering Heights is not another version of Emily Bronte’s much-filmed novel. It’s true the book and film share a title, that several characters in the film have the same names as those in the novel, that Catherine loves Heathcliff (and vice versa), and that most of the story unfolds in a bleak farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors.
But there the resemblance ends. Andrea Arnold’s film not only strips away the novel’s high-toned gothic architecture and most of its lurid, high-flown dialogue, it strips away most