Director James Marsh is primarily known as documentary film-maker. He has made the Academy Award winning documentary about acrobat Philippe Petit’s legendary tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers ("Man on Wire") and also an excruciating chronicle of the life of a chimp raised as a human and then discarded ("Project Nim"). He recently directed his second full-length feature in the excellent British serial-killer trilogy "Red Riding." Marsh's latest film, "Shadow Dancer" (2012) is set in the 1990s Belfast with the brand of grim, tight-lipped regionalism, which was penned by Tom Bradby based on his 2001 novel.
"Shadow Dancer" is a low-budget, slow-burning IRA thriller, which will be best appreciated by patient and attuned viewers. The story is set during the last days of the Irish troubles. Earlier, there is a wonderful unspoken sequence following a young woman as she boards a train, exits at a Tube station where she drops a leery package on the steps, and later, sensing danger, sneaks off into a tunnel where she makes her escape from the station, only to be immediately picked up by two MI5 agents. The film has short intro set in Belfast 1973, where a little girl, Collette lives with her family. One day, she is making a bead necklace for herself and since she doesn't want to be interrupted, convinces her little brother to go in her place on an errand for her father.
The little boy is killed in an crossfire between Irish forces and British army. From that moment, her life is occupied by cascading guilt, grief, and regret. Twenty years later, Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is caught planting a bomb in a subway station. Since she is a member of IRA, she is offered an chance to become a mole for British intelligence by MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen). Collette is defiant at first but consents when she was threatened with the prospect of being separated from her young son (a jail term of 25 years). Collette is particularly a prized asset for MI5, since both her brothers, Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) and Gerry (Aidan Gillen), are high-ranking IRA officers. The psychological suspense builds from that point with its share of assassinations, chases and one hard-to-watch torture scene.
Director James Marsh's characters takes the route of George Smiley by deglamorizing the spy-craft and by showcasing the mundane life of spies. Marsh's framing exhibit an unfussy, astute attention to spacial dynamics. The gray-green color palette very much suits the story's mood. The brown-bricked housing developments and corrugated iron of Dublin are shot very effectively. Even though the film is based upon a novel, it is more character-based rather than plot-driven. It focuses on a evil fire called distrust, which devours the good with the bad. The film is subtly incisive about how easily a woman can be entrusted, and therefore underestimated, in an aggressively male-dominated surroundings.
As Collette, Andrea Riseborough gives a luminous performance who is torn between the loyalties to her son and her siblings. Her character is a bit blurry but the shocking ending sequence leaves us with a deceitful, regretful, resolute woman. Owen is excellent as a weary MI5 offcer whose inability to stay emotionally disinterested in his line of work turns out to be his potentially fatal weakness. The relationship between a weathered Clive Owen and Riseborough conveys the unemotional exteriors their characters have spent years working up as part of their jobs. Thanks to Marsh, he downplays the possibility of romance between the two principal characters and keeps us concerned about the fate of Collette's son.
Set within an political terrain, the movie does very well to avoid a stance in favor of one side or the other. "Shadow Dancer" shows how relationships are marked by equal measures of need, exploitation, desperation and also expertly puts a viewer on a world where politics constantly corrodes personal connections.
Shadow Dancer -- IMDb