Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Shadow Dancer reviews reveal continuing divisiveness of “The Troubles”

Now this is puzzling

Sun, Aug 26, 2012, 19:21


You probably don’t need to be told that the Northern Irish “Troubles” continue to divide commentators. One could, however, hardly imagine a more dramatic demonstration of this phenomenon than the responses to James Marsh’s impressive thriller Shadow Dancer. At time of writing, there are 31 reviews on the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Just two have been declared “rotten”. Chris Tookey, voice of angry home-counties Tories in the Daily Mail, disliked Shadow Dancer because — among other reasons — it seems too forgiving of the IRA. Ray Greene, correspondent for, described the film as “reactionary and unashamedly pro-British to a startling degree”.

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To my mind, the picture offered a fairly balanced depiction of the warring forces. Whereas the main protagonist, a single-mother played convincingly by Andrea Riseborough, appeared properly conflicted by her involvement with the Republican movement, the film had its fair share of unreconstructed hoodlums. Meanwhile, the security forces — Clive Owen’s jaded MI5 operative excepted — seemed every bit as Machiavellian as contemporaneous reports have suggested.

Still, if you come to the film with an agenda, you will find much material to support your beliefs (or prejudices). What is particularly fascinating about the divide between Mr Tookey and Mr Greene is their conflicting attitudes to the main character. The BoxOffice correspondent demonstrates his regrettable unfamiliarity with Irish culture by noting that Collete McVeigh is “an IRA militant with an atypically French first name” (far from atypical, “Colette” is very common with Northern women of that generation), before going on to note that the Irish characters “are uniformly without conscience, loyalty or any redeeming features other than the familiar lilt in their voices”. (Did he really say “lilt to their voices“? He did, to be sure, to be sure.)

Over at the Mail, Tookey discusses a “UK-financed attempt to do the near- impossible: make us care about a single mother called Colette McVeigh who plants a bomb on the London Underground.” To be fair, the critics are less divided on how the character appears than on the film-makers’ intent. Greene argues that these “pro-British” reactionaries have succeeded in their aim of representing an untrustworthy, slippery traitor. Tookey claims they have failed in an attempt to create a nuanced personality with whom we can identify. No Irish critic to whom I have spoken agreed with either argument. The consensus (which I share) is that Collette — who is blackmailed into informing on her cell — is successfully and intentionally depicted  as a divided, troubled  character.

I know nothing about Mr Greene’s attitude to Ireland. A distinguished writer and academic, he has made well-recieved documentaries on Los Angeles in the movies and on the history of the sexpolitation genre. Apologies are offered if this piece misrepresents his attitudes to our unhappy history (though my comments on his ignorance of local forenames stands). Mr Tookey does, however, have some previous form. He was, of course, entitled to stand apart from the crowd and offer one of the few negative reviews of Steve McQueen’s Hunger. But his description of the film as “pro-terrorist propaganda” misrepresents that slippery piece to an outrageous degree. More specifically, his assertion that, when we see a prison guard gunned down, it is “impossible not to feel he deserves it” speaks of a determination to see malice where none is intended. Stuart Graham’s portrayal of that character is every bit as sympathetic — he is worn down by working amid shit and abuse — as is Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Bobby Sands.

Mind you, we are well aware that simply by addressing the conflict in Ireland film-makers can aggravate (to use Mr Greene’s term) reactionary tendencies. Writing before the release of Ken Loach‘s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Simon Heffer, weathered UK blowhard, was happy to eviscerate the piece without bothering to cast his busy eyes upon it. “No, I haven’t seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was,” he wrote.

Dear, dear. Mr Tookey (who is definitely a movie enthusiast) and Mr Greene (who also seems to deserve that accolade) would never stoop to that degree of pre-emptive dismissal, but neither seems to have seen the same film viewed by the rest of us. Never mind. If we all viewed the same film every time the medium would not be worth taking seriously.