Film Reviews

Shadow Dancer

Published October 27, 2012

With so much carnage in the Middle East and the rise of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, we tend to forget how vicious and bloody the conflict was in Northern Ireland barely a decade ago. Shadow Dancer looks back on this time, as if through a veil of tears.
Director, James Marsh, has made a tense, muted film that makes us feel we are never entirely sure of what the characters are thinking and feeling. Their faces are masks that open up in brief flashes of emotion.
In this story the need for secrecy is a matter of life and death. It begins with a tragedy in Belfast that sets the scene for a family’s involvement with the IRA. We cut to 1993, and find Colette, the little girl of the first act, grown to adulthood. After placing a bomb on a London tube station she is captured by the British secret service and coerced into becoming an informant. She is a single mother and is told that if she goes to prison, her son will become a ward of the state.
Reluctantly accepting her role as a spy, Colette treads a dangerous path between the British agents and the IRA militants, including her brothers. Every piece of information she relays to the enemy puts her life in danger. In an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, she cannot be seen making a phone call or talking to a stranger.
Mac, the agent who recruited Colette, is attracted to her but the relationship proceeds only by fitful glances and brief, furtive exchanges. Clive Owen gives us his full repertoire of brooding expressions, with strong emotions expressed by flickers of alarm passing through his eyes.
Angela Reisborough plays Colette in deadpan fashion. She must keep her cool when being interrogated by Kevin (David Wilmot), the resident IRA psychopath, providing plausible answers to his questions. One slip-up means death. With Mac she gives way to sudden outbursts, in which anger and passion are inextricably linked. She is not exactly beautiful, but has an air of vulnerability that Mac finds irresistable. His concerns for her safety go far beyond the professional requirement to safeguard a source.
Marsh never allows us to see anything through the eyes of the main characters. The camera holds back, lurking in the corner of a room while a scene unfolds. There is little actual violence but a constant sense of menace, underlined by subtle traces of background music. This makes Shadow Dancer rather more compelling than the typical action flick, where the plot often seems to be nothing but an excuse for successive gun fights and explosions.
Although one never feels much empathy for any of these tight-lipped personalities, the film allows an insight into the way the terrorists view the world. For Kevin and his proteges, the cause overrides all other considerations, including family ties and human life itself. They go about their work as if pursuing a solemn religious rite. With the exception of Mac, their secret service opponents are equally dispassionate and hardly more appealing.
With the right shot selection a director can turn any city into a slum, but Belfast is the kind of place that always seems to look seedy, grey and miserable on film. ‘The troubles’ – as the Irish refer to that period of British occupation and civil unrest – are said to have ended with the signing of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement of 1998, but sporadic violence continues to this day. We’ll know that peace has finally come to Ireland when a director can make Belfast look picturesque.

Shadow Dancer, UK/Ireland, rated M, 96 mins.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 27, 2012