Shadow Dancer (2012) ★★★½
Dir: James Marsh, UK/Ire, 101mins
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson
James Marsh’s second feature film Shadow Dancer takes place in Northern Ireland. After a failed terrorist attempt on the London tube system Collette (Andre Riseborough) is arrested by MI5. Placed in a holding cell she is handed a dossier and given two options by handler Mac (Clive Owen): a lengthily jail sentence or to turn informant. Fearing for the welfare of her young son Collette agrees to work undercover.
The politically fraught nature of The Troubles has often presented a backdrop for thrillers on-screen. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) is the most notable example asking questions of national loyalty alongside love and gender as Fergus (Stephen Rea) attempts to escape his past after the botched execution of soldier Jody (Forrest Whitaker). Real life figures have been portrayed such as Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day Lewis) in In the Name of the Father (1993), a member of the Guildford Four incorrectly implicated for pub bombings in the 1970’s. Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) depicted the final months of Bobbie Sands (Michael Fassbender) in a gruelling account of the 1981 Maze prison hunger strikes that stays long in the mind after the final reel. Innocent victim of police corruption or a man willing to die for what he believes in, either way the weight of history bears down on both.
Whilst watching Shadow Dancer I could not help but draw comparisons with Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008) which is near enough identikit in terms of plot albeit based on the true story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess) who later disowned this version of events. This film was flashier and more generic in approach, notching up the tension as McGartland climbs higher up the pecking order. Shadow Dancer adopts a more languid pace, sometimes overly so though there are virtues to this.
Marsh’s background is in documentary. He won an Oscar for Man on a Wire (2008) and his last output was Project Nim (2011), both well worth checking out. Here his cameras sits back and scrutinises the cultures of the IRA and MI5 with a bleak, pared down palette similar to that adopted in his part of the Red Riding Trilogy (2009). We find secrets and lies in each camp, both coldly results orientated where lives are put second to making a mark on the political landscape. Collette’s failure to carry out her task adds to an already paranoid melting pot bringing suspicion not only on her but those close. Meanwhile Mac battles against boss Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) to protect Collette and uncovers information that leads to consequences that cut deeper.
The relaxed pacing allows for a thorough sense of time and place to be rendered. We spend most of the films running time within Collette’s community and become immersed in this microcosm, a tightly knit group like many others, steeped in tradition where family is everything, but frayed with internal conflicts. The supporting cast add to the naturalistic feel of these sections of the film particularly Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson as Colette’s brothers Gerry and Connor. At times this slow burner could do with an injection of adrenaline but this would distract from the level of detail which marks this film out from many of a similar ilk.
The film rests on Riseborough’s shoulders as Owen’s character is a stock type and never fully fleshed out perhaps due to the covert nature of his profession. As the pivot her performance is low key but engrossing, a hardened exterior with inner resolve blackmailed into a scenario where the duplicity towards those closest eats away at her. The opening scene points to childhood guilt that has driven her into this faction, an almost preordained way of life that would have occurred even if she had not been arrested. Family ties are an important factor here, the bond and need to protect counterbalanced against political sacrifice and this becomes even more relevant come the finale. It is also to be respected that when events do threaten to resort to convention the script smartly swerves away, something I didn’t see coming and which opens up a revision of what has happened previously in what is more a perceptive drama than taut thriller.