In the 1990s, the exploits of the Irish Republican Army made for common film fodder, adorning dramas, action efforts and everything in between. From The Crying Game’s twists to In the Name of the Father’s legal wranglings, and including Patriot Games’ Hollywood thrills, Blown Away’s explosive antics and Michael Collins’ historical biography, the origins and impact of the troubles in Northern Ireland were never far from cinema screens. In recent years fewer features have broached the topic, yet still the fascination remains. Though arriving two decades later, Shadow Dancer adopts the sheen and style of the aforementioned offerings, as it immerses itself in the time period.
Set against a background of increasing acts of violence, the James Marsh-directed, Tom Bradby-written effort endeavours to explore a different aspect of the conflict. Whilst the film’s examination of those that dared to live a double life as IRA agitators and British spies is far from unusual, its appropriation of the female perspective certainly is. Instead of a hardened soldier or a youthful idealist, the feature’s protagonist – Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough, Brighton Rock) – is a doting mother, devoted daughter and dutiful sister. She is also an accomplice to her Belfast-based brothers’ (Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen and True Grit’s Domhnall Gleeson) active operations, and after being caught planting a bomb on the London Tube by MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen, Killer Elite), an unlikely informant to their enemies.
Collette’s family ties inspire much of Shadow Dancer’s tension, as she is torn between her ties to her siblings and young son, and her desire for freedom and a future. Whilst under watchful English eyes as well as army suspicion, only one outcome appears possible, with the film unravelling her difficult decision. The escalating stakes, driven by the adversarial actions of advancing IRA attacks and eager intelligence officers, only worsen her predicament. As the feature unfolds, Bradby’s astute adaptation of his own 1998 novel of the same name becomes an indictment of the duplicity on either side, as she remains in the middle.
Helmer Marsh may be better known as a documentarian courtesy of the award-winning Man on Wire and Project Nim, however he acquits himself well in his latest foray into fictional territory (after Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980). Though sparse in his approach and deliberate in his pacing, he utilises his observational nous and expert sense of cinematic storytelling to evoke a stirring atmosphere. Excellent performances from Riseborough and Gleeson also augment his precise efforts, alternating between measured subtlety and frenetic energy. Alongside Owen playing to type, they provide the film with its dramatic impetus, turning a standard game of IRA-infused cat and mouse into a solid slow-burn thriller.
Shadow Dancer is released in Australia on October 11th.
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson, Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen
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