30 August 2012


Right, enough of all that comedy bunkum for one week- it's time for something a bit more worthy. And indeed, after a summer of bangs, crashes, wallops and frankly inferior reboots, it's definitely not unwelcome. Shadow Dancer is set in Northern Ireland during the 1990s, and comes from screenwriter Tom Bradby's own 1998 novel, itself based on his experience as ITN's Ireland correspondent during that time.

But principally, it centres around one character- Colette McVeigh, a single mother who lives at home with her own mum, raising her son with her family's help. She's also a volunteer for the IRA, whose squeamishness about committing terrorist acts gets her caught by Mac, an MI5 operative who's hoping to recruit an informant. The McVeighs are amongst the key players in the IRA, and when faced with jail, Colette agrees to cooperate with Mac, putting herself in even greater danger.

The first impression this film gives you is that it's quite sedate. There isn't a lot of dialogue to go around in the first 20 minutes, giving way to some amazing use of visual storytelling by director James Marsh, here returning to narrative features after acclaimed documentaries, Man On Wire and Project Nim. A disturbing prologue shows Colette making one selfish mistake that could have been the entire focus of another, more introspective and overwrought film, but its purpose is ostensibly to give historical context from the off.

More importantly though, the fact that it's never mentioned shows how the troubles have affected Colette, and shaped her mindset. The traumatic incident that takes place is never mentioned again, buried deep down for both her, and for the audience. Andrea Riseborough, in this regard and virtually all others, is phenomenal as Colette, bringing a tough and mercurial quality to the role that also doubles as the front that keeps the character alive when those around her begin to suspect that she's been turned. For someone who's keeping a big secret, she doesn't half stand out in her small town, wearing that red coat...

It doesn't feel gritty or rough- the consistency is somehow much smoother than that. It's not slick, like more commercial spy thrillers, but its thrills come from a palpable sense of tension that runs all the way through, from the eerily quiet opening to a conclusion which, although explosive, still seems entirely cool and collected. As epitomised by Gillian Anderson's ice-queen senior officer, the spies of Shadow Dancer are far from benevolent to their sources, even though they've placed lives in danger by their machinations to stop the IRA. Clive Owen's Mac would appear to be one of the good guys, but his hands certainly don't stay clean for the duration.

Elsewhere, Colette's secret is a load she bears alone, aside from clandestine meetings with Mac to share information. But she's not above suspicion, and that's where David Wilmot's Kevin comes in- think of characters like Hans Landa, and strip away all of that the charm, and the veneer of affability. He's more openly hostile, but he's still quietly dangerous. In another supreme instance of visual storytelling, it's after a friendly chat that winds up a bit more like an interrogation that Colette witnesses Kevin's henchman, wrapping up the plastic he laid out on the floor in the next room for her visit. It's far more scary than a spoken threat, and exemplifies the film's intense atmosphere.

Shadow Dancer may burn a little too slowly for a multiplex crowd, but it's a film that deserves attention in the dying days of the summer. Although it's surely being released too early to pander to the awards season crowd, its unassuming worthiness makes it stand out from the impending crop of films set in the recent past that will be screaming out for a little gold bloke. Andrea Riseborough's performance speaks volumes all by itself, and she excels as the tough, yet sympathetic centre of a film that doesn't answer all of your questions. But by its understatement, it speaks far louder than most.

Shadow Dancer is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen 
Shadow Dancer, why not share your comments below? If you're wondering where you recognised David Wilmot from, he was in The Guard last year, but that's where the similarity between those movies ends...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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