A reminder of the impact of terror and violence on people everywhere, this thriller takes us inside the world of the IRA in the 1990s.
In a post-9/11 world, it is often easy to forget that terrorism is something that existed prior to the toppling of the Twin Towers. Not to diminish the impact of that event on the lives of people around the world, but violence and the threat of terror is something that people everywhere have been experiencing for eons. The political separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the country in the early part of the 20th century divided factions into a war over home rule, something that reignited with renewed violence in the 1960s. “The Troubles”, which roughly encompass the period between the 1968/1969 riots in Londonderry and Belfast and the 1990s, accounted for the deaths of thousands of British and Irish troops and civilians, before the lengthy peace process began in the mid part of that decade.
Based on his own novel, Tom Bradby’s screenplay is set in that tumultuous period in the early 1990s. Opening with a minimum of dialogue, a 12-year-old Colette McVeigh is asked to buy cigarettes for her father. Preoccupied by her craft exercise, she instead sends her younger brother, who is killed in the crossfire of a clash in Belfast. Flash forward two decades to 1993, and the now adult Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is caught after dropping a suitcase in the London underground. She is set upon by two men who escort her to a hotel, where she is handed over to a MI5 agent who only identifies himself as “Mac” (Clive Owen). He blackmails her into spying on her family for him, rather than go to jail and lose her son. She returns home amidst suspicion to her mother (the excellent Brid Brennan), and her two brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson). Both men are dominant by the ruthless IRA Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot), who doesn’t take to those who betray him kindly.
Director James Marsh is best known for his documentaries Project Nim and Man on Wire, but also for the highly regarded Red Riding: 1980, the middle chapter of the British TV mini-series. For his latest feature, Marsh takes a leaf out of post-War Hitchcock and creates a multi-layered thriller in which fear is a way of life. After shocking the senses with an explosive opening sequence, impressive for its silent tension, Bradby and Marsh spend the remaining time building a slow-burning narrative that rewards patience. If his documentary work has been to find the story within the fact, exposing the truth to the harsh light of day, then Shadow Dancer in many ways takes the opposite approach, deliberately obfuscating its meaning until its final knuckle-whitening moments.
Sharing much with last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, including the same deliberately desaturated slate to create the same sense of clinical objectivity, raising reasonable arguments for both sides of the war. Gillian Anderson, now fully committed to her English accent, is present to keep the MI5 side on track, tempering “Mac’s” emotions, ones that occasionally push the film into melodrama. Wilmot may represent the extremes of IRA fundamentalism, but the fragility of Gleeson’s Connor – and more importantly the stoic matronly portrayal by Brennan – show that the culture of fear was just as much a way of life in 1993 as it is post-2001.
Shadow Dancer may favour minimalism, including Riseborough’s lost soul and Owen’s taciturn agent, but delivers a great deal in its quick run through the Troubles. For a film that features long (and gorgeous) shots of simple human interactions, it remains surprisingly gripping for the duration. Yet even the final surprising moments are downplayed by Marsh as par for the course, making this one of the most understated, albeit no less dramatic, thrillers of recent memory.
Shadow Dancer is released in Australia on 11 October 2012 from Potential Films.