Director: James Marsh
Runtime: 101 minutes
Though his directing resume is filled mostly with documentary credits, director James Marsh is no stranger to the world of fiction. If anything, his gifts as a documentary film maker serve him well in his latest fiction film, Shadow Dancer, based on Tom Bradby's novel of the same name. In touching on subject matter as sensitive as the tensions between the IRA and the British government, Marsh's keen eye is able to weave a quietly engrossing story that never falls prey to the idea that one specific side is good. If anything, Shadow Dancer is one constant examination of a world filled with nothing but violent shades of grey.
Set primarily in 1993, the film centers on young IRA operative Collette (Andrea Riseborough), who witnessed a family tragedy loosely tied to political violence two decades prior. After a terrific opening sequence (presented without a word of dialogue) set in various tube stations, Collette is captured by MI5. While in captivity, Collette comes face to face with MI5 operative Mac (Clive Owen), who pressures her to accept a deal: she will give MI5 information about IRA higher-up Kevin's (David Wilmot) next major plan, in exchange for protection for herself and her young son.
And, just as quickly as Collette is captured, she's thrown back into her life at home with her mother (Brid Brennan) and two IRA-involved brothers (Domhnall Gleeson and Aidan Gillen). In addition to going about her daily life, Collette must now try to glean information about Kevin's plans, as well as keep up the illusion of her full-on support of the IRA's most violent tactics.
What Shadow Dancer does best is establish its protagonist and craft its quietly suspenseful slow-burning atmosphere. The 1973-set prologue gives us a compelling window into the early 20s version of Collette we spend the entire film with. Despite her initial disgust for Owen's Mac, it's clear from the train station scenes that this isn't someone who goes about doing jobs for the IRA with absolute confidence. Collette is appropriately withdrawn during her assignment (which involves placing a bomb), but as time goes on, she seems ever closer to deteriorating. And as the narrative's stakes rise, Collette feels the pull of her various duties slowly tearing her apart. It's a marvelous set up for a character, particularly when there aren't nearly enough of these sorts of roles around as it is.
Yet the screenplay, written by Mr. Bradby himself, also runs into some issues under Marsh's direction. Marsh's cast all turn in perfectly convincing work (including Owen and Gillian Anderson as an icy MI5 officer), even though the only one with more than one true facet is Riseborough's Collette. The problem is simply that Marsh pushes Riseborough to play all of her emotional cards within the first act. As such, there isn't much left for Riseborough to delve into for the remaining hour.
In her defense, however, Riseborough handles everything she's given with an understated effortlessness. Having played supporting roles in films like Made in Dagenham, Riseborough has finally been given a movie to carry on her own, and she pulls it off, screenplay limitations and all. Where others would try to go big with Collette's inner turmoil, Riseborough keeps it contained, allowing it to pour out from her eyes and across her face in quiet modesty.
Shadow Dancer's plotting, however, sometimes seems out to sabotage the efforts of the cast. While the film has no problem with only vaguely detailing its major plot developments, it can sometimes feel repetitive. This is, by and large, due to the problems with the writing for Collette. Though there are jumps to the MI5 offices and corridors, the film's focus is so grounded in Collette that it can't help but suffer due to the limited exploration of the central character. The film also throws in an out-of-left-field moment (a kiss) that, while not played for ridiculous romance, still comes across as erratic and inconsistent with the film's tone and development.
However, Marsh's craftsmanship is evident throughout, and his ability to convey his espionage-tinged story with relatively few words is remarkable. Even if you don't quite catch every development, the ending can still pack a punch, ambiguities and all. There are sequences featuring exceptional tension that help liven up the dingy, muted visuals that effectively ground the narrative in territory that is neither politically obtuse nor shamelessly one-sided. That said, Shadow Dancer isn't interested in discussing the politics of the day than examining how those politics played out in the actions revolving around one woman caught in a situation that seemed to have no happy ending. This is a flawed film, but one that is executed and performed with enough elegance to smooth out the bumps.