The lying game – Shadow Dancer review

Shadow Dancer – Starring Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, and Domhnall Gleeson. Directed by James Marsh. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

James Marsh, not content with being regarded as one of the finest working documentarians in the business, proves with Shadow Dancer he can still spin a compelling yarn in narrative features too. Having won an Oscar for the literally-buoyant Man on Wire and perhaps justified any future ape rebellion with his heart-breaking Project Nim, he turns his attention to the fictional tale of IRA informant Colette McVeigh. The Englishman casts a mostly sympathetic eye on the would-be terrorist, but doesn’t deign to convey the tale without all the moral complications that come with it. When the screen cuts to black, we’re still left questioning the motives and moves made by McVeigh. That kind of post-credits food-for-thought is a rarity in most films these days, and that it should come in the wrapper of a totally engrossing thriller is some kind of wonderful.

The success of Shadow Dancer is not entirely the result of James Marsh’s storytelling expertise; he’s aided by a number of significant co-conspirators. The first is screenwriter Tom Bradby, adapting his own novel, who brings the story to life with efficient ease. The picture opens with three spectacular sequences: an opening scene in which young Colette convinces her little brother to collect their father’s smokes from the shop, only for him to be rushed home from the tumultuous Irish streets with a fatal bullet wound; older Colette (Andrea Riseborough) planting a bomb in the London underground, attempting escape, and being captured by MI5; embittered British agent Mac (Clive Owen) interrogating Colette, and curtly convincing her to work for him, lest she be imprisoned and her son be taken away. A mere fifteen minutes into the film, all the major chess pieces are in play; all the necessities for narrative propulsion, much of the information required of us to consider Colette’s ethical dilemma, and an understanding of the stakes are all active, almost immediately. Though there are shifts in power later in the piece, and perhaps changes in our opinions of the characters, the opening of Shadow Dancer demonstrates how to draw in a viewer better than most.

Another of Marsh’s comrades is cinematographer Rob Hardy, who expertly presents early 1990s Belfast and the offices of MI5 in mundane perfection. In the picture’s centrepiece, he shadows (geddit?) Colette on an assassination attempt gone wrong, and we follow her as she breathlessly escapes into the house of her target for protection. There are other similarly thrilling sequences that also take place in unthreatening locales – amidst a funeral procession, along the coast, a dowdy bedroom – and it’s worth noting two moments involving telephones that trump any call made by Bryan Mills in Taken on the teeth-clenching scale. Like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before it – and perhaps even more so – Marsh and Hardy find the tension in banality.

But the picture’s most effective weapon is Riseborough, who simultaneously makes us care for McVeigh without ever cheating and over-emoting. Nothing she does ever feels like a manipulative ploy for us to side with a woman responsible for the murder of British nationals. At her core is a mother desperate to be with her son, even if it means spying on her vengeful brothers (Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen). When Colette becomes the prime suspect amongst her crew as a rat, the protective Mac scrambles to save her, discovering further revelations of betrayal and conspiracy in his office, as well as in her family. Shadow Dancer builds to a fine finale; one in which the revelation of the title’s meaning provides one of the year’s great ‘A-ha’ moments. Though it may reduce the politics – and even occasionally the style – of Paul Greengrass‘ harrowing Bloody Sunday to a pulpy tale of a mysterious woman and the secret agent who loves her, Marsh’s movie is expertly executed.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Shadow Dancer arrives in select Australian cinemas October 11, 2012.

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