Marsh excels with Shadow Dancer
by Vladan Petkovic
16/02/2012 - The new film by Academy Award-winning English director James Marsh lends a subtler approach to Northern Ireland than we are used to. Yes, all the elements are there - rebellion, revenge, guilt, family, a bomb on the London Underground, Belfast misery, and they are set up in practically the only possible way, but the director gives the film a strong personal touch that makes all the difference.
Adapted by former journalist Tom Bradby from his own novel, Shadow Dancer [trailer] opens in Belfast in 1973, when a young girl sends out her little brother instead of herself to get cigarettes for their parents, and he is killed in a street shootout. Twenty years later, Collette (Andrea Riseborough, from Happy-Go-Lucky [trailer] and Never Let Me Go [trailer]) sets a bomb on the London Underground, which she doesn’t activate. The MI5 captures her and an agent named Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a choice: she will either become an informant about the IRA cell ran by her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Conor (Domnhall Gleeson) or end up in jail, losing her young son Mark to social services.
Eventually she agrees, although clearly aware of the size of her betrayal to family and the cause - and consequently, herself - and provides Mac with information about an upcoming operation, which the MI5 stops, killing one of the IRA soldiers. Here we get the other side of the story, as Mac opposes the decision-makers, represented by Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson), to hang Collette out to dry. This obviously arouses suspicion in high-ranking, ruthless IRA member Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot), which puts Collette in fear of her life.
The script is absolutely solid - there is no idle time nor a single line of dialogue out of place. But where Shadow Dancer really excels is in its atmosphere: Marsh chooses gray as the dominant colour, and although the green grass of (Northern) Ireland would lend a perfect contrast to rainy skies, the director is happier to opt for details, such as Collette’s red coat - her attempt to be inconspicuous in it is simultaneously ridiculous and touching.
The narrative proceedings are intercut with economical moments that portray the characters’ relations, be it within Collette’s family, the IRA or MI5. This gives the film a strong foothold, and Marsh combines his documentary abilities with just enough, never over-the-top emotion to give us a powerful story on a much-addressed subject.