A European co-production, Shadow Dancer appears to hark back to the kind of British political thriller of the 1970s or 1980s, both on television and in the cinema, which can maintain and transfer to its audience an air of paranoia and fear for the entire length of its running time. That its story is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles adds a further strong political resonance, particularly for British and Irish audiences, in its representation of its heroine Colette (Andrea Riseborough) and her relationship with the British government contact, Mac (Clive Owen). This relationship – where he recruits her to spy for the Brits to avoid a devastating prison sentence which will separate her from her young son – is established very early in the film and this piece has no other spoilers (but some detail) about a thriller that does deliver on the narrative twists.
Adapted from his own novel by Tom Bradby (a British journalist who covered the conflict in Northern Ireland and wrote this first novel out of his experiences) It is set at the point at which the peace process of the early 1990s has begun and there is the beginnings of division in the Republican leadership which is likely to set the terrorist element adrift but the political machinations sit very firmly in the background. This is a drama focussed on the personal dilemmas and struggles of Colette caught between two strong and uncompromising bullies – the IRA and the British Government. Her fear centres not just on herself but on the safety of her son and it is the fear not just of a terrorist (the opening sequence shows her to be part of that ‘struggle’) but of ordinary people living out their lives within a situation where opposing political forces use their streets as a battleground. This is not an ideological thriller, then, (although it does draw – for me – on the likes of Defence of the Realm or the television series Edge of Darkness for aspects of a conspiracy drama). Instead, it’s a story where the most dramatic twists occur through the actions of its characters – actions which are rarely explained through the dialogue but make complete sense to you in the audience.
This is perhaps partly if you are British or Irish and are old enough to remember the context and the cross-currents of the time – but even if you don’t, it really works because this a film that is so impressive in its use of visual storytelling. The dialogue is exceptionally spare – there is hardly any for much of the opening 15-20 (ish) minutes – introducing the protagonist and her situation. It tends to the ‘wordless’ throughout – suggesting relationships and ideas through its narrative structure and through the physical performance of its actors. There is a thoughtful visual repeat which (wordlessly) reinforces the parallels of the Brits and the IRA’s treatment of Colette; there are odd gestures which encapsulate the attitude of a particular character (I thought Gillian Anderson as Mac’s boss made subtle use of very limited screen time here in this. Clive Owen plays effectively against his established suave persona without overstating it physically). Of the family, Riseborough is consummate (something you almost begin to expect from her having seen her previous work on television and film – such as The Devil’s Whore on Channel 4 (which is still available through their on-demand service in the UK) and The Long Walk to Finchley as Margaret Thatcher as well as lead film turns in Brighton Rock and part of the ensemble in Made in Dagenham. The camera in this film is not afraid of close-up – and Riseborough knows how to use it because she can entirely inhabit the territory of that character. Aiden Gillen fleshes out a typical activist, hothead stereotype with limited time and Domhnall Gleeson (a rising star – who has just shot a Richard Curtis film and part of the next big Brit-flick in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina) entirely conveys a youthful, gauche, loving brother who is also an entirely committed terrorist.
Whilst these performances are vital, the film has an understated aesthetic which might hide its incredibly sophisticated – expressionistic use – of production design. The typical browns and sepias of smoke-filled rooms set the historical era of the early 1990s, the drab colours characterise homes that (given the poverty induced by constant, drip-drip conflict) have hardly moved on since the 1970s. (Here, the film made a strong social point without ever drawing it to attention in the script through the wood-pannelled decor). Characters are dressed to fit emotional standing and mood. Framings in close-up have an unsettling (fearful) angle to emphasise effectively the tension of the narrative – nothing has been left to chance to construct a visual look that feels entirely unforced and natural. Visual edits during a funeral scene lay out the distinctions in attitudes in this community – as well as its seething anger at injustice – which informs our understanding of characters later. Fundamentalism – our popular understanding of it now – haunts aspects of this film. To begin the film on a London tube is resonant of more recent events (certainly for a British audience) and sparks us into questioning what drives people to commit atrocities – acts which viewed from outside can seem simply cold and contrived and without a human base. Anger is at the heart of this film – what it drives people to do, how it shapes them – with more sympathy and understanding of that emotion than that statement might imply.
Its director, James Marsh, was the Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire the documentary which told the story of Philippe Petit who walked across a tightrope suspended between the World Trade Centre twin towers in 1974. Nothing really joins these two British-produced films by the same director (who has directed both narrative and documentary work before), who also made another historically retrospective documentary in Project Nim, except this extraordinary ability to tell a story that could be about events and really ends up being about the people involved in them. Looking at it simply as a film (and not a politically or culturally charged film) its ability to blend aspects of performance, production design and cinematography reminds me of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from last year. That film evoked visually the seedy corridors of power to evoke emotionally the pervading distrust of the Cold War spy era within the British establishment itself. This film has a greater degree of understatement in its visual construction which I hope will not mean it is overlooked during awards – simply because this kind of British film-making deserves recognition.