Moody and evocative Irish thriller provides effective genre thrillsIn 1990s Belfast, a young woman must fight with her own allegiances to her family and her country when a British agent forces her to inform on her brothers.
Based on the 1998 book of the same name by British journalist Tom Bradby, who worked in Northern Ireland in the 90s, Shadow Dancer is a film which situates itself firmly in the period of the troubles from the off – with an strong opening set in Belfast in 1976.
The script was also penned by Bradby, and creates an evocative version of a Northern Ireland inching towards tentative peace, with plenty of reservations on either side of the Irish Sea. But despite this context and the historical importance of the period, Shadow Dancer is not another grandstanding Troubles film, with the attention instead focussed on creating an effective thriller.
And it succeeds, thanks to uniformly strong performances and some spare direction from James Marsh. He’s the Oscar winning filmmaker behind 2008s Man on Wire and also made last year’s Project Nim. Marsh has split his time between narrative and documentary projects in recent years, tackling an episode of Red Riding as well as the Gael Garcia Bernal led The King in 2005.
He keeps things understated for Shadow Dancer, following the rules and regulations of the spy thriller without surrendering to stylish excess. The camera roves, rarely settling on a single subject and the grainy photography and dull palate is offset by some striking imagery and the odd dash of colour, like the lead characters red coat.Andrea Riseborough plays lead Colette and continues on from her memorable appearance in last year’s otherwise disasterous W.E. with another effective turn. Her accent is solid, keeping the Belfast brogue subtle and the film makes great use of her haunted and drawn features, especially in the opening scenes where she doesn’t speak a word. It’s a complicated role, as the poster proclaims (in a somewhat familiar tagline) she must manage her loyalties while playing mother, daughter, sister and spy – forced to feed information to the Brits to protect her son.
That Brit is played by the ever likeableClive Owen, in a turn which doesn’t stretch his skills but sees him projecting a little emotion and pushing paperwork convincingly. There are plenty of other names in the cast – Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Martin McCann and David Wilmot and all keep the right side of the accent police, even if they’re generally just there to support the main narrative.Shadow Dancer is at its best when it’s keeping us guessing about the nature of its characters and retaining some mystery about the various players in its deadly game. Marsh shapes some short, sharp bursts of action and moves things forward at a deliberate pace which might frustrate some viewers.
The ending may not be to everyone’s taste but Shadow Dancer remains a well-made, impressively acted and evocative local thriller. Worth a look.