Director: James Marsh
Writer: Tom Bradby (screenplay & novel)
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen
Release date: August 24th, 2012
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Countries: UK, Ireland
Running time: 101 minutes
Best part: Enthralling performances from Riseborough and Owen.
Worst part: The monotonous pace.
Throughout history, Ireland’s lower and middle classes have been embroiled in violent social upheaval. Political thriller Shadow Dancer is based on a novel from the film’s screen-writer Tom Bradby. His Journalistic work for ITV news in 1990’s Northern Ireland was paramount to the success of this authentic and haunting story. The film balances between gritty realism and poetic storytelling, creating a harsh, subtle yet emotionally powerful account of one of the world’s most appalling political conflicts.
The film depicts the Irish Republican Army(IRA)’s atrocities from the insider’s perspective. Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is a single mother and pawn in a political and familial struggle. Still reeling from her brother’s death decades earlier, her emotional restraints are broken when she fails to follow orders. Arrested after her role in a failed bomb plot on a London underground train, Colette is given a choice by MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen). She can either aid the British police in capturing important IRA members or spend 25 years in prison. With her son and mother in mind, Colette reports IRA incidents to Mac. When an IRA assassination plot is foiled however, paranoia sets in and everyone becomes a target of republican revenge. Both Colette and Mac must soon face their own problems within separate organisations.
Shadow Dancer meditatively becomes a heart wrenching slow-burn thriller in the vein of this year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Following the film’s emotionally resonant first scene, the sombre tone of these horrific events establishes the core of this IRA thriller. This character study, documenting the separation between the law and anarchy, is defined by the similarities between Colette and Mac. Colette is morally driven and sensitive, determined to help the innocent people in her family by any means. From the nail-biting station sequence, her emotions illustrate the true despair of a broken home and divided country. The unique step this film takes is to develop Owen’s determined and sceptical detective character. Frustrated with his superiors, his paranoia pushes his illegitimate investigation of both Colette’s pressing situation and the practices of his own organisation. Riseborough and Owen are compelling in their chilling roles. Vastly different characters on the surface with similar shades of regret and redemption underneath, their disconcerting relationship brews intensely.
Capturing a nation’s identity through familial heartache and violence, Shadow Dancer creates a more contemplative view of crime than similar films such as 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Sharing many similarities with 2008 action-thriller Traitor, personalities and political conspiracies collide into a discomforting and powerfully relevant story. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) smartly focuses on the emotional bonds created and then broken between people on both sides of the law. Unfortunately, the film provides a narrow focus on the IRA situation through Collette and Mac’s perspectives. Marsh seems intent on depicting one family’s influential role in the civil unrest; failing to convincingly develop this pressing social affliction. This choice sorely costs vital screen time for talented character actors including Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson and The Guard‘s David Wilmot as vital IRA members close to Colette. The handheld camera style creates a gritty and atmospheric presentation of certain events. The funeral scene stands out in this case, capturing a breathtaking account of the clash between authority and republican rights.
“Is it just because she has a pretty face?” (Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson), Shadow Dancer).
Marsh has combined his experience with documentary film-making with the ever advancing possibilities of fictional storytelling. A gritty sense of darkness is born here, as each character must begin to accept the depths they have fallen into along the way. The film becomes a claustrophobic aura of death and emotional despair, despite lacking the political intrigue of IRA drama The Crying Game. Belfast specifically becomes a symbol of Colette’s shattered mind. Decrepit and sombre, Marsh focuses on locations which illustrate the societal impact of a republican force fighting oppression from a first world order. Each interrogation is an enthralling and climactic dialogue sequence. A smoke-like haze covers these scenes creating a significant sense of dread. Each interrogation illustrates Colette’s increasing danger, forcing her to continually look over her shoulder in a cold sweat. The film’s sombre tone is fuelled by a washed out colour scheme. Even in the film’s happiest moments, dark clouds gather over Colette as her paranoia begins to take over.
Breathing new life back int0 Ireland’s film industry, Shadow Dancer depicts a much-maligned sector of the country’s history. Thanks to its refined cast and efficient direction, this stoic crime-thriller picks us up and shakes around throughout its taut run-time. It may even get people invested in this ongoing conflict.