Shadow Dancer Movie Review

Featuring: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Brid Brennan, Kevin Mulville
Director: James Marsh
Writer: Tom Bradby (adapted from his novel of the same title)

Perth release date: Somerville 24, 26–30 December, 8pm; Joondalup Pines 1–6 January, 8pm
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: nail-biter!)

In 90s London, single mother and IRA activist Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is arrested for planting a bomb at a tube station. An MI5 officer, Mac (Clive Owen), offers her a stark choice: imprisonment vs returning to her Belfast home as an informer. With her young son’s welfare central to her decision, she agrees to the latter. Since her brothers are hardline IRA members in regular contact with senior leadership ordering assassinations and masterminding other terrorist activities, Collette’s informing role is both vital to MI5 and fraught with personal danger. Her risk escalates still further when she is forced into taking part in an IRA hit which MI5 agents foil, placing her under immediate suspicion within IRA ranks as the ‘rat’. The tension is tuned to extreme when Mac seeks unsuccessfully to pull her out of her informing role and discovers that MI5 has hidden agendas…

The action opens in the 70s, with Collette as a child bribing her younger brother to take on her father’s request that she run off to the nearest store to buy him some cigarettes. The brother is killed when British soldiers open fire on some fleeing IRA militants. Naturally, Collette’s guilt is crushing.

Cut to the 90s, and an adult Collette is making her way through a station in the London underground with a suitcase of explosives. We have no trouble accepting that a slight single mother should be active in the IRA; her motivation is obvious.

The bomb does not go off. She has not set the detonator correctly. As MI5 interrogator Mac observes, there is a disjunction between her commitment to the IRA and her natural inclinations – she is not a hardened killer. But is he right?

Drawing on this perceived humanity and using the welfare of her child as a bargaining chip, Mac locks her into a dilemma, pitting the child’s future against her loyalty to the IRA. She makes the decision any mother would make, agreeing to become an informer, but in so doing she has had to sell out both her political cause and her siblings – her brothers are IRA activists – for the sake of her son. And her personal stakes could not be higher.

Terrific setup, both of plot and character, with the exposition elements in these early scenes economical and seamless – brilliantly handled. Indeed, this superb standard of writing is sustained throughout. The narrative is tight, intricate but coherent, and free – oh joy! – of the logic flaws that mar so many thrillers.

Further, unlike yer typical contemporary film of this genre, the pace is adroitly controlled, rather than pushed to the limits of manic and beyond in quest of providing the audience with an adrenaline-pumping action-filled hell-ride. The result of this measured pacing is a taut thriller that smoulders with the building tension and menace of a lit fuse.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Andrea Riseborough is outstanding as Collette, entirely credible in her response to the extreme tension and complexity of her situation, while bringing an inscrutability to her character that suggests an inner turbulence – or is this feigned, a front for something other? Clive Owen emerges from his necessarily wooden MI5 interrogator role as the piece progresses, his character developing a sense of Collette as a person rather than merely an intelligence source, which dangerously complicates their relationship. When the sexual tension that has been simmering in the background finds expression late in the drama in an unexpectedly spontaneous response from Collette, it’s jarring. Oh no – in this tough, controlled, unsentimental Brit-Irish thriller, a Hollywood moment? Now?!

Worry not, dear reader. Nothing is quite as it seems. Not the IRA, not MI5, not the shadowy figures pulling the strings behind the scenes, and not the players in this theatre of guerrilla war. The great casualty, as in any war, is humanity, and this is the one, perhaps inevitable shortcoming of the film – you’ll be gripped from the first frame to the last, but the emotional power of the piece falls short of overwhelming.

Shadow Dancer starts its short season at the Somerville on December 24 – that’s tomorrow! If you’re partial to a good thriller, don’t miss.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

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