Editor’s Notes: Shadow Dancer opens in limited North American release this Friday, May 31st.
Not only a staple of Irish cinema, but a prime thematic allure for foreign filmmakers too, the troubles in Northern Ireland have informed many of the island’s most internationally successful productions, the social, political and religious contexts of the three decade long conflict offering no shortage of cinematic stories to tell. The latest of these is Shadow Dancer, scripted by Tom Bradby from his novel and directed by James Marsh, best known for his documentary success with Man on Wire and Project Nim. Centred on the dilemma of Colette, a young mother in the ‘90s tied through her brothers to the IRA, after she is captured in the midst of a bombing by MI5 agent Mac, the film explores the testing of her allegiances when the future of her son is threatened.
Clive Owen manifests the moral quandaries with wearied resignation, bringing a sad sense of futility to the violence and bloodshed at the story’s centre, his shadow-consumed face and bag-adorned eyes those of a man who realises his own inability to make peace where life has become so steeped in war.
Loyalty is at the heart of every strand of Shadow Dancer, be it in loyalty to one’s country, to one’s morality, to one’s family, or indeed to oneself. In Andrea Riseborough’s every scene we see the burden of the interrelation between these, her desire to do right by her brothers conflicting with her need to find a safer life for her son. Mac’s side of the story, too, dwells on this committal ambivalence, his need to perform the duties of his job contrary to the well-being of his charge. Clive Owen manifests the moral quandaries with wearied resignation, bringing a sad sense of futility to the violence and bloodshed at the story’s centre, his shadow-consumed face and bag-adorned eyes those of a man who realises his own inability to make peace where life has become so steeped in war. His performance may be the strongest of the film, best embodying its sad sense of tragedy, and the haze of frustrated regret through which Bradby and Marsh view these times.
Shadow Dancer’s emotional effect hinges upon its ability to make a sympathetic protagonist of Colette, a difficulty not lightly overcome given her own terrorist sympathies. Riseborough is the chief weapon wrought to fight this issue, a task she performs with steady aplomb. Vocally and behaviourally she is assured in her role, adopting an appropriate accent and air of fragility to make of Colette a woman who, indecent inclinations aside, we can believe in as a fundamentally good person. Less successful is Bradby’s contribution to the dilemma; evidently eyeing her character as somewhat too tough a sell, he contrives an early bomb-planting scene wherein Colette “forgets” to activate the device, undoubtedly aiding her formation as a relatable person, yet simultaneously introducing a clunky, unreal manifestation of her inner conflict.
Marsh brings a steady hand of subtlety, reinforcing the overarching atmosphere of the film in his moody, faded frames. Blues abound, the film drenched in melancholy and drowned in the oppressive air of conflict.
It’s a shame to have Shadow Dancer thus restrained in its characterisation; where Bradby’s mechanics are sometimes apparent, Marsh brings a steady hand of subtlety, reinforcing the overarching atmosphere of the film in his moody, faded frames. Blues abound, the film drenched in melancholy and drowned in the oppressive air of conflict. Adopting a loosely handheld style to shoot the majority of scenes, Marsh brings the touch of personality, of closeness, even of complicity. It’s difficult to follow characters like these without alienating a large portion of the audience; in the direction’s aesthetic support of the emotional undercurrent, Shadow Dancer makes this a story more human than political.
For all the regrettably visible artifice with which Bradby elects to tell it, Shadow Dancer is a powerful story driven home by the strength of its cast and the strong emotional centre they together construct. The relationship between Colette and Mac—realised over half-whispered phone calls and brief, paranoid meetings—finds welcome gravitas in these leads, who keep it together where occasionally the script flails. The strongest support arrives from an intense Domhnall Gleeson, who both here and in Anna Karenina seems to have come into his own as a talent to be watched. Less enthusing is Gilian Anderson as Mac’s superior, her character a mere plot device, her performance no better. She is indicative of the film’s fundamental flaw, the one failing which withholds its claim to greatness: for all the raw power of its feeling, its dots are connected by convenience, its emotions not masking the strings being so clearly pulled.
[notification type=”star”]72/100 ~ GOOD. Shadow Dancer is a powerful story driven home by the strength of its cast and the strong emotional centre they together construct.[/notification]