Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Director James Marsh revels in the cinema of anxiety. Whether it's stretching the viewer's tension to breaking point as we watch a Man On Wire between New York's Twin Towers or menacing our nerves with creeping jeopardy in The King, his work brings with it the unnerving tick of situations just waiting to explode.

Northern Ireland's Troubles, then, with its communities perpetually waiting for the next random bombing or death while attempting to maintain 'regular' life is the perfect setting for his brand of screw turning. Distilling a country's worth of tensions down to the dynamics of a single household, he has produced a thriller so taut that it makes last year's masterclass in dread, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, pale in comparison. And this tension was particularly illustrated at the film's Sundance Film Festival world premiere, by the woman next to me, who fidgeted agitatedly throughout the runtime, punctuating proceedings at regular intervals with barely restrained gasps of, "Oh no... oh no."


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The action in Shadow Dancer begins with the shadow of a death, from 1973, that hangs over the McVeigh household and, particularly, daughter Collette, who inadvertantly has a hand in family tragedy. Fast-forward 20 years and Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is dancing to the tune of the Republican cause, quite possibly readying herself to make a bomb drop on a London tube. But instead of taking the lives of others, she finds herself snatched off the street and given an ultimatum by MI5 spook Mac (Clive Owen) - become a turncoat to her cause or lose all access to her young son.

With her nerves already shredded by a home life fuelled by her brothers' (Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson) fervour for Republicanism, the offer looks likely to stretch her to breaking point even as it, perversely, suggests there may be a route out. The question becomes not only how much is she prepared to risk her life by betraying her family but how far is Mac prepared to push her in order to meet his goals? Mac, in turn, is facing political manoeuvrings that threaten to put Collette in even greater jeopardy

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Although set against the Troubles, this is at heart the story of mourning and vengeance in a fractured family, of mothers in a man's world trying to maintain the status quo and of lost-but-not-forgotten children. Tom Bradby, adapting the screenplay from his own novel, keeps the scripting spare, allowing Marsh to capture the McVeigh household powderkeg as much through gestures and glances as with words.

Riseborough - so good even in average films such as W.E. and Brighton Rock - finally finds the script to match her here. And she rises to the occasion with a buttoned-up performance that lets Collette's sea of emotions - from fear for her life and that of her son to brittle guilt and desperate bravery - ripple beneath the surface till their presence burns white hot. Brid Brennan also puts in a remarkable peformance as Collette's mother - a simple kitchen greeting between the two seethes with simmering emotions and unspoken trepidation - while Owen makes his mark as Colette's conflicted handler.

Collette's bravery and vulnerability are emphasised by costume choices that frequently depict her as a splash of red or blue against Rob Hardy's otherwise bleak and grey cinematograpy.

Just when the tension is almost too much to take, it is broken but it brings with it desolation, not catharsis. Marsh takes no prisoners, makes no apologies and kicks you when you're down, all of which makes his films dangerous, inifinitely watchable and almost unbearably surprising.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2012
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A woman caught up in the Troubles is forced to become a informant for MI5.
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