Tag Archives: fakery

Shadow Dancer: The Truth of Fiction

Shadow Dancer

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 August 2012

Venues: UK cities

Distributor: Paramount

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Tom Bradby

Based on the novel by: Tom Bradby

Cast: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson

UK/Ireland 2012

101 mins

‘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 Bríd 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.

Claire Oakley

Christopher Nolan is a Big Fat Liar


There are SPOILERS for all of Christopher Nolan’s films in this article.

If there is one theme that runs through the filmography of Christopher Nolan, it is the rogue trading in the economies of truth. Although his films inhabit different genres—neo-noir, detective films, Victorian melodrama and of course superhero blockbusters—there is a thematic consistency that mirrors in its narrowness the obsessional personalities of his protagonists. The protagonists are probably a good place to start. All of Nolan’s films feature isolated, lonely, often besieged, unstable and/or crisis-ridden male heroes, who usually are guilty of, or will be guilty of, the death of their wife/lover/object of desire. Lying for these men is sometimes a job, sometimes a strategy, but something that they do, that they all do. In Memento (2000), Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man whose relationship to objective reality is compromised by his inability to retain his memory for more than 20 minutes. The audience is placed in a similar position via the contortions of the narrative, which proceeds backwards, forever wrong-footed and confused. The film consists of a chain of revelations; it is a kind of über-detective story in which almost everything is a discovery of a momentous nature. Of course, the biggest trick of the film is to reveal that Leonard’s condition might in fact be a lie, his whole past a fabrication to justify what would otherwise be an insupportably meaningless existence. He is making it up as he goes along. In effect (and this won’t be the last time in Nolan’s career that we will be able to say this), the film is about films: as the repeated image of a photograph developing and un-developing suggests, a film can be run backwards, even as a life can’t. Like a character from a Pirandello play, Leonard is partly creating his own narrative, has cast himself in a role, written his lines on his body and walks through the universe as if it was a film set, casting the people he meets in the roles that suit his myth. His ultimate decision to betray and kill a man is not because of the man’s sleazy shiftiness but rather because he is threatening to reveal the truth.

The lie begins as a coping mechanism but ends up being the character’s raison d’&#234tre. Narrative is a parcel of lies and as an audience we are implicated. Past story, motivation, these are all things we need as an audience, as much as Leonard needs them as a hero. Even though in Carrie-Ann Moss’s Natalie we have the not-to-be-trusted femme fatale, there is also the weird detail that if Sammy Jankis/Leonard really did kill his wife accidentally then the cover story of murder is not only an egregious lie, but also an unnecessarily embroidered one. Why does his wife have to be raped, and then killed? Why not just murdered? It’s almost as if Leonard has his whole psyche as a kind of MacGuffin. Memento is an empty-box film. Its central conceit, as with Inception (2010), is an empty box. It is an elaborate and beautiful box that we value for its contents, but which, like the Ark of the Covenant, is full of little more than dust and the possibility of destruction.

Whereas Memento reveals the intricate self-deception of narrative to be morally corrupt, Nolan’s next film Insomnia (2002) seeks to find a moral apologia for the Big Lie. Al Pacino’s ageing detective, Will Dormer, ties himself in knots trying to solve a murder while at the same time worrying himself sick over an IA investigation that is prying into an old case and looks set to unravel his reputation and career. When Dormer accidentally kills his partner and the man whose testimony could have brought him down, Dormer is wracked by guilt and self-doubt. Like Leonard, Dormer is in a state of mental crisis, but here due to his insomnia, exacerbated by the Alaskan summer. However, Insomnia is far more conventional as a film and gives a familiar moral argument for lying. We never believe for a second that Dormer intentionally killed his partner, so his self-doubt is evidence of his integrity. His confession that he planted evidence to ensure the conviction of a child killer who was otherwise going to be released is so skewed in his favour as to make him appear more heroic for having been dishonest. Dormer is a man who sacrifices his own personal morality for the larger good. This puts him in line with all those other guardians of justice, from Dirty Harry to Batman, who overstep the line and court infamy in order to protect society.

Batman Begins (2005) worries a little bit about lying, but not much. Its power fantasies are pitched against a conspiracy theory universe in which everything that happens in the world, from the Black Death to economic crises, is caused by the secret agency of the League of Shadows. Despite the concrete tactile realism of the film’s style, the film revels in its own adolescent myth-making. The Dark Knight (2008), however, sees Bruce Wayne hoping that his place can be taken by the new DA, Harvey Dent. Everyone in The Dark Knight lies. Copycat Batmans lie, pretending to be Batman; Bruce Wayne lies about not being Batman; the Joker lies about his scars and the location of Rachel; Rachel lies about loving Harvey; Alfred lies to Bruce about the letter; Gordon lies about being dead (to his own family) and finally Batman and Gordon conspire to lie about how Harvey Dent died and to nobly place the guilt on Batman’s shoulder. As James Zborowski (http://www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2012,7,417) has recently noted in an article for Alternate Takes, the noble lie mirrors that ofThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but whereas Ford’s film sees the lie as breaking the cycle of violence and founding a society, lies are so prevalent in The Dark Knight as to almost represent a pathological need. The explanation for the lie is given to a rousing musical crescendo and topped by the appearance of the title on the screen. Lying for Batman is not about protecting society, it is an act of becoming.

(By the way, the Joker does not represent a more honest anarchic spirit. He dishes out porkies left, right and centre. His self-representation as an anarchic free spirit is contradicted by his intricately plotted and sub-plotted schemes. If anything, the Joker is an intact Leonard Shelby, who no longer gives a damn.)

The two films that are most openly about deception are The Prestige (2006) and Inception. The titles of the films refer to the practices that make their protagonists a living through lying: the magicians of the former have the Prestige as the ultimate revelation and an inception is the dream lie Cobb and his team insert in their victims. The cost the two magicians are willing to pay in order to outdo each other gradually escalates as a form of Russian roulette that takes aim at loved ones as well as one’s self. In both films, the protagonists increasingly become lost in their own narratives until by the end of each, it is unclear to the audience exactly what it is they have witnessed. We are in the empty box, the centre-less maze Nolan uses as the logo for his production company Syncopy. With The Prestige, we do finally see inside the empty box to understand how the trick is done, but in so doing the emptiness of the protagonists themselves is horrifically revealed.

Inception is all about the construction of a series of Chinese box-dream states for the sole purpose of implanting a lie. The lie has to be emotionally positive, we are told in the meeting of the dream engineers who brainstorm like studio executives ruminating over a tired superhero franchise. Nolan has the last laugh on us, because by the time we witness Cillian Murphy’s resolution with his father we might well have forgotten that the whole thing is a lie and the man is being brutally manipulated in order to benefit a business rival. Of course, the dreams are not dreams—they look even less like dreams than Salvador Dalí’s dreams—they are movies. Like Leonard, Batman, and the magicians of The Prestige, Cobb and his team make lies that they then get lost in – happily lost in. The fake ending is an interesting point, not because of its ambiguity but precisely because of its absolute lack of ambiguity. The spinning of the top is a sleight of hand (the totem is revealed in the movie to be useless in its carefully explained function as a totem as it is touched by various characters and anyway isn’t Cobb’s). We know Cobb can’t get back to his flashback children, unless we accept his fictional status. He certainly won’t get back to his real children. We know the top won’t stop spinning because there is no time outside the running time. There is no truth outside of the fiction.

John Bleasdale