‘Tell me the truth and you’ll live,’ says IRA investigator Kevin Mulgrew (David Wilmott) at the climax of Shadow Dancer, a fretful thriller set in 1990s Belfast. A simple question, yet in this film there are no simple answers; the truth isn’t depicted as a shining light illuminating the dark, but rather as a series of shifting shadows that shrink or swell with every new emotion and gradually dissolve with time.
Directed by documentary-maker James Marsh, the film prudently suggests that in this kind of conflict, there is no truth, only representations of it. And yet to achieve this complex portrayal, Marsh fought hard to seek out truths, and strove, in everything from his research to his casting choices, against any kind of misrepresentation.
Shadow Dancer, which hits the UK’s screens on August 24, focuses on single mother Collette McVeigh (played by Andrea Riseborough), a Republican living in Belfast with her mother and hardline IRA brothers. She is arrested during an aborted IRA bomb plot in London, and MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a choice: go to prison for 25 years or return to Belfast and spy on her own family. With her son’s future in her hands, Collette chooses to betray all she believes in and return home as a tout.
The characters and story are fictional, but were written by journalist Tom Bradby during his time as a TV correspondent in Northern Ireland. Bradby wanted to dig deeper into the heart of the conflict, and it was fiction, not journalism, that enabled him to do this. ‘Writing this was an opportunity for me to inform people about some aspects of the conflict, like the world of running informers, that you couldn’t put on the TV news at night, so I built the story as a way of telling what was really happening in this war and the real intensity that lay at the heart of it,’ says Bradby, who used his contacts on both sides of the conflict to research his subject thoroughly.
Marsh’s documentary background (he won an Oscar for 2008’s Man on Wire and picked up the Best Director award at Sundance for 2011’s Project Nim) brought an investigative approach to the material. In preparation, Marsh read the history of Ireland, from William the Conqueror to the present day: ‘When the actors had questions I was able to answer them and give them contexts about the politics. Ireland is a place where history really matters and I felt it was my duty to understand that and to offer advice.’
In order to find an authentic cast, Marsh was not nervous about stepping off the beaten track. ‘The first person I cast in fact was BrÃd Brennan,’ says Marsh. The fact that Brennan had grown up in West Belfast during the troubles was significant to Marsh: ‘A lot of our actors were Irish and that was important firstly because it felt like they knew this world better than I did and I felt they could help me and guide me.’
When English actress Andrea Riseborough, who plays lead Collette McVeigh, came on board, she moved to Belfast and spent time with some people who were at the centre of the conflict. In this way she was able to really inhabit the part. ‘Once you understand all the things [Collette] might have had to sacrifice, you can start to instinctively feel what characteristics she might need to survive,’ Riseborough says.
This detailed research and dedication to the facts can be felt in the profundity of the performances, but the one thing that doesn’t ring true with this film is the fact that, although it is set in Belfast, it was shot in Dublin – a seemingly major inconsistency, both politically and visually.
However, cinematographer Rob Hardy explains that Shadow Dancer is set in the 1990s, at the end of the troubles and the beginning of the peace process: ‘It was a tired world, a place where people were wanting to start anew. You sense that idea of transition and that longing to move on.’ Shooting in Dublin meant they could avoid the classic red brick estates that are associated with the Falls Road and the Troubles films. Shadow Dancer‘s distinctive grey tones seem to more accurately capture what it felt like for the people still living this worn-out war in the 1990s. ‘We tried to create a Belfast that was a Belfast for our story and so we were quite cavalier with our choices,’ explains Marsh.
But it is the choices such as this, where fiction is allowed to speak more freely than fact, that furnish this film with a reality that is more compulsive and, in a sense, truer than bare facts can depict, and that enables us to really feel what it was like for people living through the conflict. ‘You want to make the details of the world convincing and to pass the test of those who lived through it, but at the same time, I think the bigger imperative here is to make something so we can all understand what it is like and something that is true to itself,’says Marsh.