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Hidden Agenda (1990)

Main image of Hidden Agenda (1990)
35mm, 108 minutes, Eastmancolor
DirectorKen Loach
Production CompaniesInitial Film And Television
 Hemdale Holdings
ProducerEric Fellner
Co-producerRebecca O'Brien
ScreenplayJim Allen
Director of PhotographyClive Tickner
EditorJonathan Morris
MusicStewart Copeland

Cast: Frances McDormand (Ingrid Jessner); Brian Cox (Kerrigan); Brad Dourif (Paul Sullivan); Mai Zetterling (Moa); Maurice Roƫves (Harris); Robert Patterson (Ian Logan)

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Northern Ireland, the recent past: an investigation into the murder of a US civil rights campaigner points to illegal anti-terrorist tactics and criminal conspiracy at the highest levels of government.

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It's an odd paradox that, while the 1970s were a Golden Age for paranoid thrillers in the US, Hollywood backed very briskly away from the genre in the next decade. Britain, by contrast, produced a stream of fine conspiracy dramas for cinema and, especially, television, including Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985), 'In the Secret State' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 10/3/1985), Defence of the Realm (d. David Drury, 1986) and A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988). Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda is a late but distinguished addition.

The 1980s had been a lean time for Loach, but he bounced back resoundingly with this robust thriller attacking British shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland and corruption at the highest level of government. Hidden Agenda was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, where its combative anti-establishment stance caused a tremendous furore among British critics, but where it also won the Jury Prize.

Just six months later, the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, one of the film's main targets, resigned from office. On the other hand, Loach's star was back on the rise and Hidden Agenda ushered in an exceptionally fertile and successful period for the director.

Written by Loach's frequent collaborator Jim Allen, Hidden Agenda is set in Belfast in the recent past (the exact date is unspecified) and starts with the shooting of an American human rights lawyer (Brad Dourif) in town to probe the British army's interrogation tactics. The dubious circumstances surrounding his death are investigated by his girlfriend (Frances McDormand) and a British police detective, based on John Stalker, a senior police officer involved in a similar real-life case, and played here with gravitas by Brian Cox.

Hidden Agenda resumes Loach's commitment to exploring the Irish question, as seen previously in Looks and Smiles (1981) and subsequently in The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), while a small subplot comparing Northern Ireland to General Pinochet's Chile also taps into the director's long-standing interest in Latin American politics.

The film starts with the Orange Day marches of 12 July and gradually darkens into winter as the story unfolds. Its everyday settings are anonymous sales reps' hotels, car parks, and shabby Republican pubs and clubs, rather than the shadowy melodramatic surroundings of classic noir thrillers. One of the most quietly chilling sequences (filmed with hidden cameras) involves an abduction in broad daylight on Central Dublin's O'Connell Bridge, while passers-by barely blink an eye.

Sheila Johnston

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Video Clips
Shoot to Kill (1990)
Allen, Jim (1926-99)
Cox, Brian (1946-)
Fellner, Eric (1960-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Morris, Jonathan (1949-)
O'Brien, Rebecca (1957-)
Zetterling, Mai (1925-1994)
Ken Loach: Feature Films
Ken Loach: The Controversies