"Shadow Dancer" is on its most basic level a rehash of the classic Irish conundrum: how to deal with informers. Victor McLaglen, the big, bluff brawler whom Hollywood hired whenever they needed a stereotypical Irishman, cast the mold in John Ford's 1935 classic, "The Informer." Director David Lean - he of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago" fame - weighed in with "Ryan's Daughter" in 1970. Sarah Miles plays Rosy Ryan, the bored wife of aging Robert Mitchum. Rosy drifts into an affair with a handsome, maimed British officer, sent to garrison her village in the wake of the abortive 1916 Easter Rising.
The liaison seals her fate. When the landing of arms for the IRA is thwarted by her lover, she takes the fall. Turns out that her publican papa, played by Leo McKern, is the real snitch, but he lets his daughter pay the price of his perfidy.
Like "Ryan's Daughter," "Shadow Dancer" conflates family ties with terrorism. The story opens at the start of "The Troubles" in 1972. Big sister, told by her Da to go out and buy him a pack of "fags," bullies her little brother into running the errand. He's carried home a few minutes later with a stray bullet through his heart. The look her father gives her dumps a lorry load of guilt on her little head.
Fast forward to 1992. Talk of a truce is thick in the air. But the IRA is still horrifically active. The grown up Collette (Andrea Riseborough, who got noticed in "Never Let Me Go") is riding the rails of her guilt trip. Her mission is to place a bomb on a Belfast train. Instead, she dumps it in the station, the timer unset. Having been followed, she's arrested a few minutes after her cop-out.
Enter MI-5 agent Mac (Clive Owen), whose mission is to turn her. Colette must balance loyalty to two brothers in the IRA against the future of her little son (echoes of the sib she sent to die in '72) if she's in an English prison.
Although "Shadow Dancer" teaches us little that's new about the terrible family and communal conflicts that ripped North Ireland society to shreds during The Troubles, the film is a spare, taught thriller. While Collette is new to the role of turncoat, the local cell has smelled a rat for some time. An assassination gone amuck quickly swings the arrow of guilt Collette's way. But is she just a stalking horse, set up by the Brits to provide cover for their real mole? And, if so, who might that be?
Mac is loyal to his "Joes" (or "Joannes"). Excluded from his boss's strategy sessions, he decides to freelance the exit of Collette from the mess into which he lured her. Needless to say, not everybody comes through this one alive. Who lives and who dies… who is guilty and of what… these are the questions that keep us hanging in there until the ironic end.
As "Shadow Dancer" concludes with a duo of twists in 1993, the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement is still five years off. From 1969 until 1998, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA or Provos) was pitted against loyalist paramilitary counterparts and the British armed and covert forces. Peace talks finally prevailed, probably because nearly everyone was exhausted by three decades of violence, hatred, fear and uncertainty. Under the Agreement, the IRA ostensibly decommissioned its arsenals, the constabulary was reformed, and the Brits withdrew from the streets of Belfast and Ulster and the sensitive border areas.
Prelude to the '98 Agreement, however, was the 1994 ceasefire between the paramilitary/terrorist units. It is axiomatic that, when two warring factions are contemplating an end to the fighting, both sides ratchet up the level of conflict, the better to position themselves when the shooting has ceased. The year 1993 saw increased atrocities, especially against civilians, by both sides. Collette and Mac are pawns, dancing in the deadly shadows of the political minuet.
The truce, by the way, was doomed to fail, as was a subsequent one in 1996. Even the '98 Agreement has not entirely eliminated terrorism in Northern Ireland. But life - for the survivors - is probably the best and safest it's ever been.