Following in the footsteps of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shadow Dancer is an absorbing period thriller about divided loyalties, instability in the British intelligence services, and the personal cost of political turmoil. Director James Marsh is best known for his acclaimed documentaries Man On Wire and Project Nim, but also directed an episode of the astounding television drama Red Riding. His first foray into cinematic fiction shows a confident command of his craft, steadily escalating the tension and never using words when visuals will do.
Where Tinker was coldly methodical in its approach to the genre, Marsh centres his story around a single Irish mother, Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), born into a family firmly rooted in the Irish nationalist movement, but forced to work with a British agent (Clive Owen) to protect her son.
[This review was originally published to coincide with the UK release of Shadow Dancer. It has been reposted with an additional opinion to coincide with the US release of the film.]
Director: James Marsh
Release Date: May 31, 2013
Where most thrillers are quick to establish their protagonist’s extraordinary skills, Colette is a fragile, vulnerable presence from her first moment on-screen. Suffocating with guilt, she’s manipulated by all sides in a conflict for which she shows little enthusiasm for picking a side. Her older brothers, Gerry and Connor, are deeply embedded in the IRA and its battle to (ostensibly) gain independence for Northern Ireland, and the planning of terrorist activity is a regular occurrence in her family home. She’s a volunteer, but her real concern is keeping her young son safe from the violence raging in the streets outside. Having unwittingly sent her brother to his death when they were children, the idea of civilian slaughter – even of the British – fills her with horror. After being captured by MI5, she’s faced with the choice of becoming a mole, or spending the rest of her life in prison and having her son sent into care.
It’s a relatively novel approach to the genre, because there’s no sense of Colette having any control over what is happening to her. If you like your heroes dynamic and confrontational, look away now. She’s brave and quick-thinking, but always kept a step behind the truth by her MI5 spymasters and IRA brothers. Andrea Riseborough, an actress of extraordinary expressiveness and subtlety when not ‘directed’ by Madonna, communicates her character’s splintering psyche with every part of her body, from her huddled demeanour and slightly off-balance walk to every fearful stare over her shoulder.
If the story’s heart and tension come from Colette, a walking symbol of every victim of a war between two sides prepared to send ordinary people to their deaths, the mystery is handled by her MI5 handler, Mac. Clive Owen plays the part in more or less the same way he plays every part, gruff and simmering with controlled anger, but is a good fit for a character who serves as little more than a plot device, uncovering the extent to which a disorganised, reactionary British Intelligence are ready to sacrifice their human assets on an ill-considered whim. Whether he likes to admit it or not, Mac is part of the system propagating the conflict and thus part of the problem.
Considering how divisive the IRA issue still is, Marsh takes care to present both sides as morally questionable: Mac’s boss, Kate (Gillian Anderson), appreciates the people risking their lives for her cause in Northern Ireland strictly in terms of the information they bring back. When required to sacrifice one to save someone more valuable, her decision is taken in less than a heartbeat. On the other hand, her amorality is at least partially understandable when presented with the horrors being acted out by the IRA, who are happy to plant bombs in public places and murder civilians in broad daylight. As peace talks get underway, there’s a sense that the McVeigh brothers’ fight is guided more by revenge and hatred than any great eagerness for their country’s independence.
While Riseborough expertly holds sympathy for Colette, Mac’s storyline never quite grips as effectively as it should. Its consequences for Colette’s safety keep the tension rising as suspicions are increasingly cast on her loyalty to the cause by Aidan Gillen’s terrifying Kevin, who undertakes his responsibility for unearthing and eliminating traitors with ravenous zeal. The climactic reveal which gives the movie its title lands a solid emotional punch, and the turnabout it inspires in a lead character reinforces the self-destructive nature of the conflict. Nevertheless, the impact is all on Colette’s side: while it’s very much the point that Mac and Kevin represent the movie’s active characters, lighting fuses as Colette dodges explosions, the imbalance of sympathy creates a disconnect from Mac’s story that holds back its big moments from being completely satisfying. Other misjudgments – like Colette going to a secret rendezvous in the most conspicuously bright red raincoat this side of Don’t Look Now – are minor, but jarring.
The movie is fortunately a strong enough atmospheric piece to compensate for such shortcomings. The cinematography is bleakly compelling, creating a domestic battleground out of Belfast’s streets that reinforces the importance of family bonds. Marsh is supremely adept at quietly building suspense, providing just enough information to establish a lurking danger and leaving viewers’ imaginations to expect the worst. An early scene in which Colette wanders through an underground station, bag in hand, holds back from answering whether she’s planting a bomb, performing reconnaissance, or just on some innocent errand. Maintaining the uncertainty creates tension that would have blunted by literalising the assumed danger. Similarly, Colette spotting a man rolling up a sheet of transparent tarpaulin in a room adjacent to her interrogation is all the more ominous for its meaning being implied rather than explicit.
Between Marsh’s expert directorial restraint and Riseborough’s ever-stunning performance, Shadow Dancer continues the British film industry’s recent resurgence (see also: Kill List and Wild Bill) and deserves the attention of anyone in need of relief following another summer of loud, artistically underwhelming blockbuster excess.
Hubert Vigilla: Some of Shadow Dancer‘s best moments are the expectant ones. In the flashback that opens the film, there’s an ominous, foreboding tone that James Marsh draws out until it’s almost unbearable. We know something bad is going to happen outside from those panicked people running past a window, and yet it hasn’t happened yet. This tension its tethered to the relative inactivity within the house and even the whistle of a tea kettle. Whereas most filmmakers would time the event with the screech, Marsh is wise to do what he does and prolong that suspense — tragedy never strikes when the water is ready because that would be too tidy.
It seems like Shadow Dancer is best viewed as an exercise these kinds of moments, ones of impending, mounting tension, and then the release. Much of the is driven by Andrea Riseborough’s performance, though Clive Owen is good even if his role isn’t nearly as fleshed out or complicated. I’ll admit that my knowledge of The Troubles isn’t that good, so a lot of the finer points about allegiances and intelligence were lost on me; the film will obviously play better for those who understand the history behind the conflict. And yet there’s enough in terms of style to keep me interested. Just when I feared that the plot would take a turn for cliche and schmaltz, Marsh knew just what to do to avoid it. 74 – Good