“The informant who went into the cold.”
It’s 1993, and the peace process in Northern Ireland is cautiously inching forward – though there are some who prefer a more robust method of rebellion, shall we say. Among them is Collette McVeigh (Riseborough) whose little brother was killed by the British Army when she was 12. Along with her brothers Gerry (Gillen, whom you’ll know as Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) and Connor, she is part of the armed struggle, until a mission to plant a bomb in London leads to her capture. MI5 officer Mac (Owen) gives her a stark choice: face a long stretch in prison, separated from her children, or become an informer on her own family. Collette chooses the later, perhaps influenced by Mac showing her it was an IRA sniper who killed her brother. But it soon becomes clear more is at play, with Mac’s boss (Anderson) apparently intent on sacrificing Collette, in order to protect another, more valuable asset.
Man, this is chilly. Just about everyone in this is being manipulated by one or more of the other characters. It is particularly successful at bringing home just how much the life of an informant must become a gurgling vortex of paranoid loneliness: you can’t trust anyone, and your life could end at virtually any moment. There’s one scene which really brings that home, where Collette is taken to an abandoned apartment, and quizzed about recent security breaches by her cell’s “compliance officer” (for want of a better job description!). She’s entirely on her own, and not even her brothers would be able to help if the truth is revealed. But she’s certainly not the only one: Mac is equally being used by his boss as a tool, and with a coldness that’s particularly chilling, since they’re supposed to be on the same side. Enhancing this, is that the viewer can see the point: it’s like a game of chess where a knight is sacrificed to protect the queen. Doesn’t make it any less painful for the knight of course, but the greater good is not necessarily painless. As a result, there are no real villains here: there are, however, a number of people who have to do unpleasant things for others, either through coercion or because they believe them to be justified. Such is the murky world of terrorism and counter-terrorism.
Director Marsh is best known for his docudrama Man on Wire, about a tight-rope walker who strung a line between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 and crossed between them, 1,350 feet up. This provides a similar same sense of living on a knife-edge, and resulting ever-present peril – along with the threat of violence, which even infects something as solemn as a funeral. The double-twist ending is shocking, though I confess the second one seemed to appear out of nowhere, and appeared to offer little more than this shock value. Still, as a tense drama, this is solid enough, anchored by decent performances from all involved.
Dir: James Marsh
Star: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen