Not that things have ever been smooth-sailing for Ireland’s divided religious communities, but apparently the early 1990s were a fairly unpleasant time. ‘Shadow Dancer’, an adaptation of author Tom Bradby’s novel of the same name, follows Colette McVeigh, IRA member and young mother, as she is swept into the inner workings of MI5’s league of informants.
Known mostly for documentaries, director James Marsh, who most recently directed another adaptation—‘Project Nim’, has done a fantastic job with Shadow Dancer. This is an uncomfortable movie; a tense and sometimes deliberately drawn out tale – but those who invest the time will uncover some excellent performances.
Of these, lead actress Andrea Riseborough (‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘Made in Dagenham’) is gripping. She looks on the verge of tears for most of the film, and given her situation, you wouldn’t blame her. She struggles to keep her status as MI5 informant secret from her brothers (including ‘Harry Potter’ alum Domhnall Gleeson, most recently spotted in ‘Dredd 3D’). I think it’s in her eyes; she seems so vulnerable that it makes for a great set-up when she begins to show her true colours.
Clive Owen, probably the most mainstream drawcard on the bill, is in his element as MI5 agent ‘Mac’. Picked over as James Bond, Owen has charismatic screen presence to spare. A tough but sympathetic lead, his vulnerability makes for an interesting dynamic between he and Riseborough.
Genuine tension is not easy to craft. A lot of films pitch themselves as thrillers (‘Taken’, I’m looking at you), but mostly deliver poorly stitched together bursts of action over the top of very basic whodunit formulas. You can pick the twists, the red herrings. Maybe that’s why I liked Shadow Dancer so much. The legitimate tension comes from the backbone of drama; Colette is very much a pawn thrust into a situation that is not only far bigger and more powerful than she is, but is being manipulated by figures beyond her reach. You feel for her. She’s at the mercy of her wit and chance.
Colette is also at the whims of her family—and a fantastic cast of support characters. Gillian Anderson (‘The X-Files’, ‘The Last King of Scotland’) and Aidan Gillen (‘Game of Thrones’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’) both put in effective performances – Anderson, as Mac’s MI5 superior, is much more detached and arrogant than I’m used to seeing. Gillen, who plays a small role alongside Domhnall Gleeson as an IRA supporter, also shines.
The subject matter is fascinating on its own – and it’s interesting that director Marsh, while highlighting that there’s no distinction between the IRA and other terrorist groups, still paints them sympathetically. The struggles are humanistic – Colette is victimized and it makes for painful, compelling viewing. The final act does close things up nicely – for which I am grateful, since it left me wanting to know more about the current situation. There’s a real power in that kind of response – and one that speaks for Shadow Dancer’s ultimate value: a timely reminder of an ongoing tension on our doorsteps.