Shadow Dancer: a film you should see


Someone asked me on  twitter why I thought Shadow Dancer, which I’d been enthusing about, was worth seeing, was in fact a must-see.

The answer is more than 140 characters long.

Full disclosure: it’s partly because my old friend Tom Bradby wrote the novel and adapted it for screen. But it’s much, much more than that.

This film made me cry. This film reminded me that behind the headline troubles which beset the British Isles for three decades were many, many stories of sadness on both sides. That Shadow Dancer spotlights the tribulations of a Catholic family is almost by the by.

Maybe I found this film so moving because I am a mother. I hope it’s not that. Because what would that say about fathers? I hope it’s because I’m a parent and a human being that I was moved by the struggles of Colette McVeigh (a stunning performance from Andrea Riseborough) to square her commitment to her community with her commitment to her young son.

How would I react if defending everything I believed in and held dear threatened the safety of my children? I don’t know. I hope I’m never in that desperate situation.

McVeigh condemns her son to  the ‘care’ system if she refuses to spy for the Brits who catch her on a failed bombing mission. But she’ll leave the little boy to grieve for her for the rest of his days if Republican hardliners discover she’s turned informer. She’s like a blind woman walking through a field of mines. She can scarcely afford to breathe. She’s ‘dead’, as she screams at her MI5 handler.

The film’s at its brilliant best just documenting McVeigh’s daily life in Belfast – the modest and scrupulously clean interior of her family home, the bleak housing estates and the terrible weather.

The story, it seems to me, is about balancing. Perhaps director James Marsh was consciously or unconsciously referring to his hit film Man on Wire.

McVeigh experiences interrogation by both sides in almost equally grim circumstances. Both sides seek to manipulate her for the sake of their own agendas, which seem wholly divorced from the needs of people.

In her heart, she must balance the brother she lost in the troubles (the tragic past)  against her live son (hope for the future). Bradby and Marsh seem to be suggesting that it was when the Republicans wanted a future, more than they wanted to avenge the past,  that the peace process could begin.

It was a funeral scene which destroyed me. The men with guns, on both sides, have no thought for the grieving women, who’ve lost husbands, sons, fathers. They’re caught up in their own testosterone-fuelled cult of masculinity.

That’s when I cried because, although I don’t have a detailed knowledge of the troubles and am wary of writing about them therefore, this seemed true to me.

Strangely, it is also where I take issue with my old friend. As a feminist, I want to resist this gender divide. Men with guns are often fathers too.

I’m left wondering whose politics are getting in the way of the truth here.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps that’s the point the film is making doh! The film finds the human reality of a bitter, dirty war and that’s a triumph which speaks to all civil wars.

It seems to me a very romantic and optimistic film, flying the flag for the idea that people will put themselves and their beliefs second to those they love. The film says what we need to say more, that all sides pay an impossibly high price for armed conflict; that war causes deep, irreparable sadness. No one who fights, wins.

After the screening I asked Tom about the emotion in the film. Had he felt sad about the situation when he was working in Belfast as a young reporter for British television news? It was hard for me to imagine that he’d had time to feel in the maelstrom of reporting.

He looked at me in some surprise. ‘I went to a lot of funerals. Too many.’

Find your nearest screening of Shadow Dancer here.

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