A woman’s betrayal of her family serves as the linchpin of the taut political drama Shadow Dancer, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim). Set during “the Troubles” of the 20th century between Britain and Northern Ireland, the era’s bloody violence often pitted neighbor against neighbor and tore families apart. Screenwriter Tom Bradby began the novel on which the film is based while a television correspondent in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. His perspective as a journalist balances the storytelling from both sides of the conflict, never forcing the audience pick a political ideology.
Andrea Riseborough stars as Collette, a young single mother and somewhat ambivalent terrorist. She lives in Belfast—the Ground Zero of Ireland—along with her mother and two hardliner IRA brothers. When she’s picked up by the police after a bombing attempt on the London subway system, she meets Mac (Clive Owen), an MI5 officer who gives her an ultimatum: Either become an informant against her brothers and their crew or be put in prison for 25 years, away from her young son.
Collette makes the King Solomon-like decision to choose a life with her son, fully knowing that she will pay the ultimate price if her spying is ever uncovered. When her brothers’ assassination attempt on a police officer is foiled by the authorities, suspicions among the IRA members are aroused, and a tense game of cat-and-mouse ensues.
Her psychological turmoil builds as the film heads into a surprising climax. She’s constantly second-guessing herself, struggling between trusting her family, whose roots are closely entwined with the IRA for deeply personal reasons, or putting her faith in the British agent. Riseborough, who notably starred in Oblivion with Tom Cruise and the Madonna-helmed W.E., brings an enigmatic stoicism to Collette, who protects herself and her son by cutting herself off emotionally from the outside world. The audience isn’t sure of what she’s feeling, but perhaps it’s because Collette herself doesn’t know what to think or do—she believes she’s damned either way.
In a nuanced performance, Owen brings a quiet intensity to the screen. His Mac is a caring agent who’s overly protective of his charge—someone who’ll go to great lengths to keep his promises. A mixture of his idealism and his possible feelings for Collete spur him to make decisions that could compromise his career. At the agency, Mac also clashes with his hard-nosed colleague, Kate (Gillian Anderson), over the ethics of the use of human pawns for the endgame. (She seems to have less trouble with sacrificing a few lives for the greater good.) Kate also knows things about the situation that Mac isn’t privy to—such as other informants working both sides of the conflict—but refuses to tell him anything that’s not on a need-to-know basis. Anderson’s screen time is minimal, but her presence serves as a good juxtaposition to Owen’s character. Her faux British accent, however, is distracting against the rest of the cast’s (who are U.K. natives), which is somewhat surprising considering her experience with several other British films and television shows (including Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Bleak House and Great Expectations.
The politics—and most of the violence as well—stays in the background and off-screen. A little more context for those not familiar with the history of the era would have been beneficial, but not essential, to the story. Instead, director Marsh focuses this slowly simmering drama on more universal themes of family, betrayal and decisions that people make that are both right and wrong at the same time.
Director: James Marsh
Writers: Tom Bradby (based on his novel, Shadow Dancer)
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Aidan Gillen, Domhall Gleeson, Brid Breenan, David Wilmot, Martin McCann, Gillian Anderson
Release Date: May 31, 2013 (limited & VOD)