Shadow Dancer Reviews
A slow, stolid, essentially British film, Shadow Dancer is remarkably predictable. Each choice is explored in stereotypical fashion: the MI5 agent talks about the futility of violent resistance and the IRA leverages nationalistic and family loyalty. The performances are good but not extraordinary. Clive Owen is as intense as ever, and Andrea Riseborough is occasionally too stoic to read but not dynamic enough to be worth caring about.
Overall, if there were some surprise at the end, I might look more favorably on the film.
As much as car chases, gun fights and explosions can hinder a movie when it wants to have an intelligent discussion about an important subject, the banal and uninspired "Shadow Dancer" proves in slow moving abundance how bad the other extreme can be in sucking all of the oxygen out of the room. In this case, it involves people making life and death decisions and watching as other life changing ones are made without any kind of emotional reaction in the least. In the process, this also ends up wasting the talents of Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough.
The film is written by Tom Bradby, based on his novel. Bradby is a political editor for a British news channel so presumably has some insight into the conflict in Northern Ireland. None of that awareness is evident here, if it weren't for their accents his terrorists could hail from anywhere and represent any random cause. When you're dealing with a real terrorist group their agenda must be acknowledged, whether you agree with it or not. If you're not willing to provide any insight into why these people are willing to commit such violent atrocities then you should be using a fictional organisation rather than being disingenuous to an entire race of people. In Bradby's hands, the IRA have all the depth of the villains from a straight to video Dolph Lundgren movie. There's never any mention of why they have a gripe with the British authorities, everything's played out in simplistic black and white terms. It's akin to how Hollywood portrays the American civil war as good (The North) versus evil (The South) when the reality of course is much more complex. The movie disgustingly attempts to manipulate British viewers with a scene involving the planting of a bomb on the London Underground. For what it's worth, no Irish person has ever detonated a bomb on the Tube but several British people have.
Gone are the days when British films dealt with the subject of Ireland from a remorseful perspective. Not since John Wayne made "The Green Berets" has such propaganda been disguised as entertainment. Being a successful documentary film-maker, Marsh should know the value of representing all sides of a story. If he's not willing to then he shouldn't be making films based on real-life topics. Maybe a straight to video Dolph Lundgren vehicle would suit him better?
While Andrea Riseborough is currently making her move towards stardom opposite Tom Cruise in Oblivion, it was here in Shadow Dancer (which debuted at last year's Sundance, when I first caught it) that she first showed signs of greatness. She's the model of vulnerability and personal strength as Colette McVeigh, a young mother living in tumultuous 1970 Belfast. The film hooks you right from the start with a serious of well-staged, compelling sequences that quickly move all of the chess pieces onto the board. Asked by her father to run to the store, Colette instead tasks her younger brother to do it, only for him to return home with a fatal gunshot wound. The guilt on her face is one we'll become accustomed to, and we see it again soon after when an older Colette hits the London subway system with plans to blow it up as part of an IRA plot. The plan is a disaster, and swarmed by MI5 agents, she races through the dizzying tunnels and onto the street, where she is captured and forced to make an impossible choice. Clive Owen is Mac, a steely agent who tells her she can either go to jail for 25 years and lose her daughter forever, or she can turn informant and spy on the IRA. It would be an easy choice, if her entire family wasn't comprised of IRA operatives.
In particular, Colette's older brother Gerry (a fearsome Aidan Gillen) is the leader of the local IRA cell, who rules with an iron fist but senses dissension in the ranks. His paranoia only increases when it becomes obvious someone has been feeding the government information, and along with his brutal lieutenant begins to do whatever it takes to maintain his strangle-hold on power. Within the span of 30 minutes, we're already neck deep in Colette's plight, all of the moral and ethical concerns she must wrestle with. The stakes for her are always front and center due to the anguish on her face, the torment tearing her up from the inside. One wrong move and she could lose far more than just her freedom.
At the same time, she's completely at the whim of forces out of her control. Marsh, so good at finding tension in the quiet moments, creates an air of uncertainty that follows Colette wherever she turns. Her home is a potential death trap; the streets run red with blood, and even those who are supposed to be helping her in MI5 have their own personal agendas. Mac is embroiled in an internal power struggle with his boss (Gillian Anderson) who is working her own assets that threaten to blow his operation out of the water. It shatters the cool, calm veneer he had been putting on, and his attitude towards Colette is considerably more aggressive. It isn't long before all parties are playing their own games in a deadly free-for-all.
This is an intricate, deliberately paced piece of storytelling by Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby, adapting his own novel. His familiarity with the characters and their personal struggle allows for a certain sense of freedom and economy of dialogue. There are long stretches where Marsh allows for the gorgeous cinematography to do the talking, especially during one thrilling sequence in the midst of a funeral procession. Riseborough is a haunting figure, who seems to float like a wisp from one tenuous situation to the next. Owen is, as usual, the face of quiet conviction. There's a passionate chemistry between him and Riseborough that is palpable, but doesn't play out as one might expect. Nothing about the film is predictable, for that matter. Even if some may take issue with the pace, there are enough twists, turns, and unexpected bursts of violence to reward those who invest the time. Shadow Dancer is the work of a true professional, an intelligent and enigmatic tale that will leave you wishing there were more espionage thrillers this good.