Title: Shadow Dancer
Director: James Marsh
Major players: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson
Out of five? 4.5
James Marsh made his name directing the Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire, the story of a daring high-wire routine between New York’s Twin Towers. His latest offering, a thriller set at the start of the peace process in Northern Ireland, sees him explore another, equally potentially lethal, balancing act.
An active member of the IRA, Colette (Andrea Riseborough) makes a deal with MI5: to spy on her brothers’ gang in return for being spared prison. When her behaviour arouses suspicion and she becomes a target in her own right, she is forced to choose between her commitment to a political cause and her dedication to her young son.
Films set during the Northern Ireland conflict aren’t that unusual – In The Name Of The Father, The Crying Game – but portraying such a complex political situation is always fraught with challenges. Marsh, however, doesn’t concentrate on the politics: he simply uses the context as a background, enabling him to explore the emotional dilemmas of his characters and the tensions they cope with, all of which are caused by the conflict around them.
The result is a terse, gripping thriller saturated with a relentless, often unspoken, tension. This is reinforced by the frequently sparse dialogue and even sparser music, which allows the tension to breathe through silences and close-ups. It’s a compelling portrait of a community living on the edge, 24/7.
Gloomy exterior and interior domestic settings intensify the claustrophobia and secrecy. Stark images of faceless flats and endless terraces of grey, identical houses mask the turmoil behind the closed doors. Grey is the pervading colour of the film, with cigarettes creating a grubby mist in the MI5 office where Mac (Clive Owen) chain smokes at his desk, while the locals in the pub seem to live in a permanent fog. This is a pub that also boasts the telling sign “No singing allowed.”
Against this setting, Marsh examines contrasting mother-and-son relationships. The mother of the central family is only ever known as Ma (Brid Brennan): she is nigh-on invisible, dutiful to the point of being taken for granted and resigned to the likely fate of her offspring, despite her love for them. Colette is equally devoted to her young son, who is clearly emotionally affected by the surrounding violence, and risks everything to preserve his safety. And MI5 chief Kate (Gillian Anderson) is the complete opposite: she has a son of a similar age, but is distant, brushing him aside when a visitor comes to call.
The acting is first-rate all round, from Andrea Riseborough’s mask-like expression that still manages to convey all her inner conflicts and fears to Clive Owen’s world-weary MI5 agent who still has enough humanity left for it to become his weak point and Gillian Anderson’s ice-maiden MI5 chief. But the stand-out performance comes from Brid Brennan as Ma: it’s a wonderfully subtle and telling portrayal of a downtrodden woman who has her moment, albeit brief, away from the gloom.
Shadow Dancer’s original novel, and screenplay, are the work of Tom Bradby, ITN’s political editor so, like the film’s director, his background is in reality. Media interest in the film prior to launch was a no-brainer. Bradby, however, couldn’t resist a quick cameo, appearing on a TV screen as a reporter, admittedly under another name – although he does resist winking at the camera!
The ending may come as something of a surprise, if not a shock. I won’t give it away but, in hindsight, it makes perfect sense both in terms of plot and tone. With Shadow Dancer, James Marsh makes his transition from documentary to drama seamlessly and, apparently, effortlessly. The sad thing is that, good as the film is, its distribution is less than widespread, so you will have to seek it out. Do. You won’t be disappointed.
A podcast version of this review is now available to listen or download at: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Browse/playaudio/16743