If you were asked to guess what kind of film this was just from the title, what would you come up with? I’d guess thriller may be an early choice and that possibly it revolved around subterfuge and double crosses.

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However I think you’d exhaust a ton of options before Northern Ireland came up. Unless you’d read the thriller of the same name by ITN’s baby-faced political correspondent Tom Bradby.

The Troubles, we just don’t do it. It is a subject we have mostly avoided or skirted around cinematically. Which is probably just as well – the US kept cranking out ‘Nam films because they knew whatever they did, they couldn’t make it any worse. In principle there is plenty of dramatic and visual scope for a Tour of Duty- style film set in Belfast but nobody has yet been crass enough to make it.

The only war film context we feel comfortable about using for Northern Ireland is the Cold War one of espionage. With its tale of “turned” IRA members spying on their colleagues and being “run” by MI5 operatives,1 this is a contemporary version of Harry’s Game, the three-part ITV drama that was a sensation in the early 80s.

James Marsh is most famous for his documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim but he’s made just as many dramatic pieces.

Shadow Dancer is involving more than gripping but its mystery, the identity of a second spy in a paramilitary cell, is well handled and it delivers a couple of genuine surprises. It is a good, well-made thriller but no more than that.

It is set mainly in 1993, at the start of the peace process, when British intelligence was looking to exploit any uncertainty or loss of purpose in the paramilitaries. After a failed attack on London, Clive Owen sees a chance to get someone inside a particularly dangerous IRA cell.

Owen can be suave enough to be a serious Bond contender but he does pretty good shambling too and his black suit hangs awkwardly off him throughout.

Andrea Riseborough is convincing as the mother who is stuck in the middle, though arguably the pick of the performances is the coldly menacing David Wilmot as a kind of IRA Rat Finder General, determined to sniff out the turncoat.

SHADOW DANCER (15)

Director: James Marsh

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aiden Gillen, David Wilmot and Domhall Gleason Length: 100 mins

***

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