Shadow Dancer is a taut, intelligent, sophisticated thriller. In a way, James Marsh’s film is more notable for what it doesn’t say, than what it does. Long passages of the film go by in relative silent, with the an economy of language to communicate information to the audience. It’s quite heartening how much faith Marsh seems to have in his viewers, that the film never feels the need to burden itself with awkward exposition, instead trusting the actors and the surroundings to tell the story. You won’t find a thriller this year that thinks more highly of its audience.
Set during the Troubles, Shadow Dancer is surprisingly apolitical. I am always wary of Irish or British films exploring our nation’s more troubled history – and especially those exploring the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s an issue which still evokes rather strong feelings, even after a decade or so of relative peace. It’s something that feels much too intimate, much too personal for an Irish or British filmmaker to really handle without getting a little bit too caught up in it. There are, of course, exceptions that prove the rule (like Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley), but it is a topic that still feels a little close to the bone.
So Marsh does an excellent job making his thriller morally agnostic. Set in the mid-nineties, as John Major made his oft-overlooked Downing Street Declaration (often overshadowed by the eventual Good Friday Agreement), the politics of the issue are shunted off to the side. It’s suggested that this is a time for moderation, and that there might be a real chance for peace, but that the community is still caught in a cyclical state of violence. There is a voice of moderation present, in the estate’s local politician played by Michael McElhatton, who accuses those still caught up in the cycle of violence and recrimination as “f%&@ing children.”
Both sides in this moral quagmire are caught in a cycle of violence begetting violence. We see the first time the Troubles would enter our lead character’s life, but then we jump ahead twenty years. By that stage, it’s clear that events have overtaken themselves. She’s already been recruited to the cause by her militant older brother Gerry. The family is coping with the fallout from a murder that happened off-screen, implied to be the latest in the series of tit-for-tat violent actions.
Early on, Colette is approached by her brother Connor. He’s found the house of the RUC officer who tried to pin that murder on the family. They plan to pay him a visit. This bloody business has become so mundane, so deeply engrained, that he asks Colette if she wants to come along, as if asking her to the family barbeque. “Do you want in on it?” he asks, matter-of-factly, almost as soon as she gets home from her trip to London. Later, it becomes clear that it wasn’t really a question.
Marsh makes it clear that this is an inevitable escalation of this sort of conflict, to the point where the ideology itself becomes little more than idle rhetoric. While the Irish are portrayed as bloodthirsty revenge-hounds, the British forces don’t emerge much better. Marsh portrays Northern Ireland as a society where trust has broken down. Not only between the British and the Irish, but within the two camps themselves. Gerry has become increasingly paranoid about the people closest to him, including his family. Colette’s handler, Mac, feels like he’s being played by people in his own department. If these people can’t trust within their own circles, what hope do they ever have of trusting each other?
“Nobody dies,” Mac promises Colette, the first time he meets her. “Nobody gets hurt.”We suspect that it’s an empty promise the moment we hear it. We are proven correct within a few minutes. There is nothing glamorous about the world Marsh portrays, and casting Clive Owen as a beaten-down intelligence handler is an act of genius. The normally suave and sophisticated thespian evokes a rundown and defeated James Bond. Owen plays the world-weary spook wonderfully, crafting an idealist who has simply been beaten down by the war of attrition he faces every day.
Mac’s shirt and tie aren’t top-of-the-line, they look like they came from Penny’s. His commute to work is held up by the grim ritual of a bomb inspection. Top secret spy meetings take place in an office that looks like its falling apart, rather than some sleek ultra-modern workspace of the future. Even the information dossiers look like they are falling apart at the seams. There’s a sense that Shadow Dancer takes place in a very real world, one without a hint of the romance or the idealism you might find in other films.
Marsh’s world is so stark and so grim that there is no hope of redemption. Those characters seeking to make the world a better place often meet brutal ends. The only real response is to get out, to get clear. To leave everything in the rear view mirror and just make a break for it. Any attempt to salvage anything will only wind up pulling you deeper down the rabbit hole. It’s very powerful, very thoughtful stuff – and it feels remarkably honest. Marsh briefly introduced the film, and made the point that, although it is very obviously set in Northern Ireland, he wanted to tell a story that was universal.
Shadow Dancer feels like a universal reflection on these types of perpetual and generational conflicts, and the way that violence only begets violence. People have to pay for the last violent act, leading to the next violent act. Any attempt to prevent that cycle only drags the participant deeper into it – it’s an inescapable and overwhelming force, and Shadow Dancer captures that sense of moral claustrophobia quite well. James Marsh makes sure that we never know quite which way is up, and that we are worried about Colette for every frame of the film.
Marsh’s style is wonderfully unobtrusive. He favours these nice long shots and these tight close-ups, allowing his actors to deliver their best unabridged performances. His approach is minimalist – there’s no massive audio cues to let you know when things are tense, and his matter-of-fact handling of the grimmer aspects of this type of life only makes the film more powerful. There’s no sense of embellishment or manipulation to the story Marsh is telling, and I think that helps it pack such a strong punch.
That said, his camera work is occasionally a little too shaky at times, especially when he is moving. His tight focus works very well for static shots and conversations, but Marsh seems to struggle just a bit when he’s forced to follow his target or to pan across a conversation. Marsh also has a wonderful gift for colour. Despite taking place mostly inside estates, the greyest places on Earth, Marsh finds ways to slightly brighten the palette without making anything too bright. The primary colours are all there, they are just a little muted.
Marsh does overplay his hand a bit, slightly, and it feels a tiny bit too much at times. His decision to film Colette wandering around in a striking red raincoat makes for some wonderful shots, but it feels a little too obvious a visual metaphor – especially since another character refers to her as “red meat.” It’s hardly subtle, and it feels just a bit blunt for a movie that is otherwise a little more sophisticated. Still, that’s a relatively minor complaint. Shadow Danceris packed with frames dripping with suspense. It’s quite difficult to get a read on where the film is going at certain points, and that helps keep the audience off-balance.
Marsh has assembled a pretty great cast. Andrea Riseborough is perfect as Colette. The film is careful not to give its characters too much dialogue or exposition, and it’s a smart move. These characters inhabit a world where it seems like a momentary lapse in judgment will get them killed. So it’s up to the cast to really nail the roles, and all do – but especially Riseborough as Colette. Alternately vulnerable and incredibly strong, she anchors the film, and plays naturally off Clive Owen.
Aidan Gillen makes the most of a relatively minimal role as Gerry, the family’s most fanatical adherent. Most of what we know of Gerry comes from other characters, but Gillen give him a wonderfully unnerving inner life. Domhnall Gleeson is continuing to develop as a verypromising young Irish actor, and one with a great deal of range. It’s great to see David Wilmot, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Irish character actors. And any excuse to see Gillian Anderson on screen is worth my time.
Shadow Dancer is a rare treat, a brilliantly constructed and sophisticated adult thriller. It’s rare to find a movie that doesn’t undervalue its audience, and James Marsh’s thriller is well worth the time.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Andrea Riseborough, arts, Belfast, Clive Owen, Colette, Downing Street Declaration, film, James Marsh, John Major, ken loach, Marsh, Movie, non-review review, Northern Ireland, review, Shadow Dancer, Tom Bradby, Troubles, Wind That Shakes The Barley