As a documentary filmmaker, James Marsh has an unerring ability to find strange and magnificent stories and transform them into rousing and dramatic cinema (see his Oscar-winning Man on Wire or his magnificent and heartbreaking piece about a chimpanzee, Project Nim). With his feature films, however, he tends to gravitate towards material that is almost oppressively downbeat. Dark family drama The King, for instance, explored the twisted nature of sin and redemption in the heart of America’s bible belt and did it in such relentlessly grim fashion it was simultaneously hard to watch and utterly compelling. His acclaimed middle segment of the Red Riding trilogy, meanwhile, brilliantly mined the hopelessness of David Peace’s Yorkshire Ripper-inspired, multi-novel crime epic to tell a soul-sickening story of bankrupt morality, corruption and injustice. Needless to say, there was very little light at the end of the tunnel – and the film was all the better for it.
For his latest foray into fiction, Marsh continues down this ever-darkening path. Set in Northern Ireland in 1993, just as the Troubles were sounding their final, protracted death knell, Shadow Dancer finds the director confronting a still-raw piece of recent history through the skewed perspectives of those forced to live clandestine lives. One such person is Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother from an IRA-supporting family that is resolutely opposed to the looming ceasefire.
Having witnessed her young brother being shot dead during a British army incursion onto the streets of Belfast 20 years earlier, Colette is haunted by residual feelings of guilt (she had sent her brother out to run an errand) and conflicted about her loyalty to her family – a situation that is brought into sharp relief when MI5 catch her attempting to plant a bomb in London. Faced with the prospect of spending years rotting away in a British jail cell without seeing her son or becoming an informant, she reluctantly chooses the latter option. However, though it considers the obvious danger to herself this course of action entails, the film plays its cards close to its chest with regards to possible ulterior motives for her turning snitch.
That it largely accomplishes this successfully can be attributed to Riseborough’s performance and Marsh’s willingness to let her convey Colette’s agonizing turmoil without the need for explain-all dialogue. The first time she is presented with her limited options, for instance, Riseborough gives us a sense of a woman frantically playing out every possible scenario in her head while seemingly doing nothing more than sitting in a drab interrogation room awaiting news of her fate.
It’s here that Marsh starts ratcheting up the tension, but in an elegant, organic way. Sent back into the lion’s den to gather intelligence on her older brother Gerry’s terrorist activities, the apparent ease with which she evaded capture for her failed mission immediately arouses the suspicions of her sibling (Aiden Gillen, on fine, flinty form), yet her remarkable instincts for self-preservation – instincts that quickly enable her to deflect suspicion – also result in her other brother, Brendan, (Domhnall Gleeson) coming under closer IRA scrutiny.
The insular and convoluted nature of this world all feels very authentic and Marsh is good at depicting not just the period drabness, but also the way that the characters’ otherwise mundane existence can be quickly ripped apart by brief, devastating blasts of violence.
It’s too bad, then, that the film begins to lose its way as it starts placing a greater emphasis on the evolving relationship between Colette and her steely-eyed MI5 handler, Mac. Played by Clive Owen, Mac is exactly the sort of soul-weary government professional Owen can portray in his sleep, which turns out to be a bit of a problem: it just doesn’t seem credible that his character – despite his growing disillusionment with the cloak-and-dagger bureaucracy of his profession – would allow himself to become so deeply and personally involved with a terrorist snitch.
Given the rest of the film’s emphasis on character over plot, his presence feels more like a device to move the story on than a fully realised character and, as watchable as Owen is, Mac’s arc makes the film too melodramatic without supplying any of the attendant thrills one might expect from such a development.
Similarly, Gillian Anderson’s under-written presence as Mac’s ruthlessly pragmatic boss feels like a character drafted in from a much more amped-up, action-oriented spy film. She bolsters the intrigue, but her purpose jars with an approach that seems determined to keep things low-key. Consequently the gut-wrenching tension that makes Shadow Dancer such an enjoyably uncomfortable experience in its early stages gives way to a sluggishness that ultimately makes it hard to endure for all the wrong reasons.
Shadow Dancer (15)
Directed by: James Marsh
Starring: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Gillian Anderson
Rating: * * *