Directed by: James Marsh.
Written by: Tom Bradby based on his novel.
Starring: Andrea Riseborough (Collette), Clive Owen (Mac), Brid Brennan (Ma), Aidan Gillen (Gerry), Domhnall Gleeson (Connor), Gillian Anderson (Kate Fletcher), David Wilmot (Kevin Mulville), Cathal Maguire (Mark), Michael McElhatton (Liam Hughes).
Like Werner Herzog, James Marsh moves back and forth between fiction and documentary films effortlessly. He probably better known for his docs like the Oscar winning Man on Wire (which I didn’t like as much as many) and Project Nim (which I did), but his fiction films including the criminally neglected The King, which was exceptionally creepy (and not in a horror movie way) and his part of Red Riding Trilogy, are perhaps even better. His latest fiction film is Shadow Dancer – about the IRA in the early 1990s. The film has a drab and dreary visual look – it’s always raining in Ireland – which matches the somber tone of the film. But what the movie really lacks is tension. Here’s a movie about a woman from a family or IRA members, who becomes an informant for MI5 putting her life in jeopardy from both sides, and yet the movie is never really all that tense. It just kind of sits there.
The best thing about the movie is the performance by Andrea Riseborough. She plays Collette, who in the opening scene we see dropping off a bag in a London Metro station, and immediately being arrested. Her interrogator is Mac (Clive Owen) who gives her two options – spend the rest of your life in jail, lose custody of your young son, or become an informant. Although she hesitates, she eventually agrees to become an informant – which will mean ratting on her own family – since two of her brothers are in the IRA. This makes her even more guilt riddled than before – as a child, she sent her younger brother on an errand she was supposed to go on, and he got killed in the crossfire between the Brits and the IRA.
Strangely for a movie about the IRA, the movie is almost devoid of politics. The IRA and the Brits are heading towards a ceasefire – this time, perhaps permanently, and yet the movie never offers any opinion of the politics involved – either in sympathy with the IRA or against it. In fact, the movie doesn’t even really mention any of the issues at play – or why the leadership of the IRA wants to take the deal, and why those on the ground, including Collette’s brothers, are dead set against it. I suppose you could argue that any watching the movie already knows the issues – and already knows what side they’re on – but the complete lack of politics in the movie seemed like a strange choice to me.
The movie still could have worked without the politics of course – as long as the human story was compelling, which I don’t think it was here. If the movie is supposed to be a thriller, than it lacks any real tension, despite all the plots twists the movie throws at you – and the constant state of fear Collette is supposedly in - the enforcer for the IRA suspects she has turned informant – and will kill her if he finds out for sure. But aside from a few quiet conversations, this doesn’t really go anywhere. On the flip side, Mac trying to figure out the truth behind MI5’s motivations – particularly those of his boss (Gillian Anderson), and why they seem to be trying to undermine him also doesn’t make much logical sense – except, of course, because the movie cannot reveal its secrets until its convenient to the plot. There is also the issue of the forced romance between Collette and Mac – there isn’t much there beyond long, meaningful looks, but since this goes nowhere, I wonder why it was included at all. The ending of the movie also seems completely illogical.
I liked the visual look of the film for the most part. This is a visually drab movie – everything seems to be a shade of grey – which is appropriate for the film since the characters are equally depressed as their environments, and perhaps because the movie takes place in the moral grey zone. The performances match the look, and are appropriate for the characters – especially Riseborough who manages to make Colette sympathetic, despite being a downer to spend the entire movie with. Owen does what he can with Mac, but it’s an underwritten role. Perhaps the best performance in the movie is by Brid Brennan as Collette’s mom – who is quietly excellent throughout. No one else really makes much of an impact.
What we’re left with is a thriller that lacks tension and has an illogical ending, a movie about the IRA devoid of politics, a romance that doesn’t go anywhere, and a character study of drab, boring people. I’ve probably made Shadow Dancer sound worse than it actually is – but there is no doubt that coming from Marsh, this was a disappointment.