Director James Marsh came to prominence with documentaries and he brings a grounded, unpolished sense of reality to this atmospheric Belfast drama set in the early ’90s (where everything looks so tatty it might as well be the ’50s). The acting is impeccable, led by Andrea Riseborough (Brighton Rock) as a single mum from a hardline IRA family dead set against the looming political settlement. It’s engrossing, but not quite the first-rate thriller Marsh made with 2008’s Man on Wire about the high-wire artist Philippe Petit.
The script is adapted by ITV political editor Tom Bradby (a correspondent in Northern Ireland during the peace process) from his own 1998 novel. In a gripping early scene, Collette (Riseborough) is caught trying to plant a bomb on the London Underground. During interrogation, MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen) gives her a choice: turn informer or go to prison for 20 years and forget about seeing your son growing up. Colette accepts and goes back to Belfast where her brothers (Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson, both brilliant) are planning to murder an RUC police officer.
The detail is chillingly effective. On the morning of the assassination, as the gang members load their guns, one of their mothers fusses around them pouring tea ("I have coffee if yous want"). Colette’s smooth return arouses the suspicions of the IRA’s paranoid internal security thug (David Wilmot). She also plays a cat-and-mouse game with Mac. Sphinx-like, Riseborough keeps us guessing to the end as to where Colette’s true allegiance lies. And while it’s hard to grumble about such a smart, intelligent drama after a summer of big bangs, its slow pace at times feels sluggish.