Shadow Dancer: Sundance Film Review

Shadow Dancer


James Marsh’s gripping thriller set in Northern Ireland demands patience and concentration of its audience, but the impeccably crafted film is well worth the effort.

Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen star as two people on opposite sides of the Northern Ireland conflict in James Marsh's meticulously calibrated thriller.

PARK CITY – While best known for the documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim (one a 2009 Oscar winner, the other criminally overlooked in this year’s nominations), director James Marsh spreads himself between non-fiction and narrative features. He’s working with riveting assurance in the latter field in Shadow Dancer, a slow-burning, intricately plotted thriller set during a tense transitional period in Northern Ireland.

A television correspondent in that country in the 1990s, Tom Bradby adapted the screenplay from his novel. He brings a cool-headed understanding of the political canvas and a highly disciplined approach to the drama, both of which mesh well with Marsh’s restrained style.

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Both the director and writer also show a healthy disdain for pandering exposition, instead shaping atmosphere in early scenes with a minimum of dialogue. That may make the grim film a little challenging for wide commercial exposure, but discerning audiences will find that its carefully crafted suspense exerts an ever-tightening grip.

A terse prologue set in residential 1970s Belfast shows young Collette McVeigh (Maria Laird) too immersed in the girly pastime of stringing beads to go to the shop for cigarettes as her father requested. Instead she sends her little brother, who gets caught in crossfire and killed. Stunned guilt is written all over the girl’s face as she stares mutely at her anguished family gathered around the body, her brightly colored new necklace seeming to reinforce her culpability.

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Years of self-recrimination are etched into the features of the older Collette (Andrea Riseborough), who reappears 20 years later, a single mother and active IRA member in a family of hardline radicals. Arrested in London during an aborted 1993 subway bombing attempt, she is presented with a dossier by MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen), whose detailed knowledge of her life reveals years of close surveillance. He also shows her photographic evidence indicating that her brother may have been killed not by British gunfire but an IRA bullet.

At first, Collette is defiantly uncooperative, demanding a lawyer. But when Mac presents her with the alternative of 25 years in prison hundreds of miles from her son, she reluctantly agrees to return home and act as a mole, reporting on the activities of her brothers, Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson).

While Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and, to a lesser extent, David Hare’s recent telemovie, Page Eight, indicate a possible resurgence of the British espionage thriller, this is something more intimately combustible. Having the spying take place within a deeply scarred family creates an unsettling dynamic of torn loyalties and betrayals both personal and political, with the opposing forces of self-preservation and sibling love ratcheting up the tension.

There’s also the traumatic effect on her young son (Cathal Maguire) of Colette’s unexplained absences and of watching his mother dragged from her bed by police for questioning after she fails to show for her first meeting with Mac. These clandestine encounters are atmospherically scheduled on a lonely pier, invariably lashed by rain. Even getting away from the house without triggering the suspicions of her watchful mother (Bríd Brennan) becomes nerve-wracking for Collette.

Outside the immediate family unit, other threats are closing in and friction is growing between the moderate and extremist Republican factions. When a planned IRA hit on a British Security Forces detective is botched and the shooter killed, IRA operatives conclude that the squealer must be someone close to the McVeigh brothers. A scene in which Collette is grilled by an IRA heavy (David Wilmot) while a thug lays plastic sheeting on the floor of the next room to prepare for her possible dispatch is bone-chilling.

At MI5, different tensions mount. Through the circumspect behavior of his supervisor (an icy Gillian Anderson), Mac begins to realize there are other agendas in play and that his informant may be a pawn in a larger operation. Denied access to that intelligence and increasingly concerned for Collette’s safety, he conducts his own investigation, uncovering shocking information that adds new layers of complexity to the secrecy within the McVeigh household.

The story in itself is first-rate. However, it’s the very measured handling that makes it distinctive. At one or two points, things appear to be moving in a more predictable direction, notably with a step toward possible romance between Collette and Mac. But Bradby’s unerringly intelligent script never makes a move that’s not vital to the narrative fabric.

Planting spoken and visual clues with methodical patience, Marsh eschews flashy suspense-building tricks. He works with cinematographer Rob Hardy to give the film a somber look, using low light, unsettling angles and washed-out colors that make the red coat Collette wears to her meetings with Mac pop like a bloodstain. Dickon Hinchliffe’s moody score and Jinx Godfrey’s unhurried editing also go hand in hand with the overall scheme to coax intensity out of deliberately subdued drama.

The same goes for the compelling performances, which are contained and for the most part unemotional, in keeping with the story’s emphasis on what’s hidden.

Owen is at his best in these coolly intelligent man-of-integrity roles, and the shades of ambiguity that creep into Mac’s businesslike rapport with Collette give their scenes an intriguing edge. Riseborough’s work is exacting in its focus. Her face appears hardened by bitter experience and painful choices, or clenched in fear, but there’s always more going on behind her eyes. In the key family roles, Gillen, Gleeson and Brennan all convey a lot with intentionally underwritten characters.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Unanimous Entertainment, Element Pictures, Wild Bunch Production, in association with LipSync Productions
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Gillian Anderson, Bríd Brennan, David Wilmot, Stuart Graham, Martin McCann
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Tom Bradby, based on his novel
Producers: Chris Coen, Andrew Lowe, Ed Guiney
Executive producers: Joe Oppenheimer, Brahim Chioua, Norman Merry, Vincent Maraval, Tom Bradby, Rita Dagher
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Jon Henson
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Costume designer: Lorna Marie Mugan
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Sales: CAA, Wild Bunch
No rating, 102 minutes