Shadow Dancer

Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

19 July

 

IRA declare ceasefire, 1997

On this day in 1997, the Provisional Irish Republican Army declared that hostilities with Britain were over. It had come into being, in its modern form, in 1969 after increasing unrest over campaigns for more civil rights for Catholics had resulted in the mass deployment of the British Army in Northern Ireland. There had been several ceasefires before, most recently in 1994 when secret talks between the IRA and the British government had led to negotiations about proper talks to secure a settlement. When the British government announced that it wouldn’t go into talks with Sinn Fein (seen as the political wing of the IRA, though becoming increasingly distant from it) until the IRA disarmed, the IRA responded by calling off the ceasefire. A new government in 1997, one that didn’t need the votes of Ulster Unionists (who were against any compromise in Northern Ireland) to sustain itself, changed the mood again and the ceasefire was reinstated on this day in 1997. The ceasefire remained in place until the IRA later declared that it had given up the armed struggle and would work for its political aim of a united Ireland “exclusively through peaceful means”.

 

 

 

Shadow Dancer (2012, dir: James Marsh)

Written by Tom Bradby, an ITN reporter who cut his teeth in Northern Ireland, Shadow Dancer is rich in detail and drenched in the ambience of the time, when an askance look, talking to the wrong person, not being enthusiastic enough about the cause could all get you killed. Bradby’s elegant script and James Marsh’s direction brilliantly set up in a few minutes what many films can’t do in 90 – showing us how the violence of one generation is passed on to the next in a simple scene of a young girl called Collette witnessing her brother being shot and killed in 1970s Northern Ireland. The action then cuts to London in 1993, where Collette, now all grown up and embodied by Andrea Riseborough, is picked up by police after trying to leave a bomb on the Tube in London. Enter Clive Owen in another of his slick “operative” roles, as the MI5 man using charm and naked threat to make Collette become an informer. It’s an offer she can’t refuse. The trap is set.
But when is it going to spring? That’s the coil of tension hanging over Shadow Dancer, which takes the spy thriller genre and does strange things with it. For one thing the mechanics that drive more Hollywood ventures – precise plotting and procedure – is replaced by sheer naked luck. In Shadow Dancer things work out quite often not because of the planning or derring-do but because fate somewhere flipped a coin and it came out heads. Victory also goes to the guy who can think on his or her feet. This insistence on the ad hoc nature of fate is matched by the look of the film – shabby, in a word, whether it is the MI5 offices full of hulking old computers, thick with cigarette smoke, or back in Northern Ireland, where prosperity always lagged way behind the rest of the UK. Nasty particulars also drum up an atmosphere: for instance the scene where hard men casually line a room with plastic sheeting before any questions have even been asked of the person they want to have “a chat” to – it’s going to get bloody.
And there’s the always excellent Riseborough as a very peculiar sort of spy, one who is working against her own people, an IRA woman whose had too much of the Troubles but still isn’t entirely ready to quit. And because Riseborough plays it absolutely straight – to her fellow actors rather than the audience – we’re unsure how far Collette is prepared to take her collaboration with MI5. This lack of a firm handle on the motivation of Collette’s character is possibly what made the film less of an instant sell to some people. Is Collette a good guy or a bad guy? Come to that, what draws a man like Mac (Owen) to a trade like this? And is his boss, tough nut Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) really the iron maiden she appears? Bradby’s script withholds, withholds, withholds, asking us to raise an “undecided” flag against nearly every character in the film, until finally as it deals out the final card, all becomes semi-clear, and we say “ahaa”. And then it all goes cloudy again – the fog of war swirls back in.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Andrea Riseborough’s performance
  • Tom Bradby’s great script
  • Real atmosphere of the place/time
  • Yves Angelo’s deliberately drab cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Shadow Dancer – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Man on Wire

Philippe Petit 417 metres up between the towers of the World Trade Center

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

22 March

 

Karl Wallenda dies, 1978

On this day in 1978, Karl Wallenda, founder of The Flying Wallendas, a daredevil circus act, died aged 73. Born into a family of circus people in Germany, Karl had begun performing aged six. By 17 he had his own act, with his brother and girlfriend. By the age of 23 he was performing in the USA. Karl developed the seven-person chair pyramid (on a wire), which was a showstopping part of the Wallendas’ routine, and performed it regularly until it went wrong, killing two members of the troupe (Wallenda’s son-in-law and nephew), paralysing another (his son) from the waist down and injuring Karl’s pelvis. Karl performed the stunt again, though only rarely. Wallenda died after falling 121ft (37 metres) from the wire while walking between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel.

 

 

 

Man on Wire (2008, dir: James Marsh)

The title comes from the charge sheet of Philippe Petit after he was arrested for slinging a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then walking between them. James Marsh’s brilliant film tells the story of Petit’s 1974 act of mad heroics similarly to the way a previous film, The Burger and the King, explored the relationship of Elvis Presley to food. In other words, there’s a serious intent beneath the playful storytelling. Marsh is blessed that Petit and his gang of guerrilla performers took miles of cine footage of their preparations – how they practised for one of the most audacious high wire act of all time (417m/1,368ft up) on a rope only a few feet above the ground in a field in France. For the rest he uses talking head reminiscence, dramatic reconstruction, footage of the walk itself, to present what feels very like a heist thriller – we meet the people (“the Australian”, “the Inside Man” etc), we learn of the plans, the equipment (the 200kg cable, the 8 metre balancing pole), the security to be circumvented, and then we get the execution of the deed itself.
Petit had come up with the idea of making the walk even before the twin towers were finished, aged 17, after reading about the building in a dentist’s waiting room. He worked his way up – practising on the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Warm-up acts out of the way, kinks ironed out of his technique, Petit achieved the big one on 7 August 1974. He was arrested after he’d made the traverse eight times, walking, dancing, laying down on the wire and kneeling to salute watchers during the 45 minutes he was up there. Later he’d remark that “I did something mysterious and magnificent and I got a practical ‘why?’ ”, a romantic Frenchman’s view of meat-and-potatoes America. Lending the whole film poignancy is the fact that the World Trade Center is no longer there, the victim of another prankster’s less amusing intervention. But though Marsh could have played up this aspect, he doesn’t, thankfully, leaving it to us to supply our own subtitles when he gives us a glimpse of the pass that Petit still has – “Observation Deck of the World Trade Center – Permanent.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Winner of the best documentary Oscar
  • An analysis of the times as well as the man, like James Marsh’s other documentaries
  • The fascinating enthusiasm of Philippe Petit
  • The new footage seamlessly integrated with the old

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Man on Wire – at Amazon