FILM REVIEW: Shadow Dancer
By Grace Cook on August 31, 2012 in Film
John Marsh’s Shadow Dancer is a revelation.
Opening on a gritty Belfast estate, within the first five minutes the audience are subjected to the atrocities committed during the conflict between the British army and the IRA. It’s 1973 and 12-year-old Colette McVeigh is told by her father to run to the shops to buy him a pack of fags.
Occupied by beading herself a necklace, Colette passes the errand on to her little brother. Minutes after, a commotion kicks off outside, and her little brother is killed in the crossfire; his body returned to the parlour, and the door is closed on the guilt-ridden Colette.
Fast-forward 20 years, and it’s now 1993, and we find Colette (Andrea Riseborough) on the London underground, bomb in tow. Aware she’s being followed, she hatches an escape plan via an emergency exit, leaving her handbag containing the bomb on a flight of stairs. Of course, MI5 are one step ahead, and once outside, she is picked up by two agents and transported to a secure location, where she is given evidence that her little brother was actually killed by an IRA bullet. Colette is posed with two options: face 25 years in jail for carrying the bomb, or go under-cover and become informant for the secret services, with Mac (Clive Owen) as her protector.
The film then progresses to follow the moral transgressions of Colette, and what ensues is a dramatic and tense thriller with many unexpected twists and turns. What is noticeable is that for the first 20 minutes or so, there is a striking lack of dialogue; the action itself does all the talking and the silence does nothing to prevent suspense building. Arriving back in Belfast having reluctantly accepted Mac’s proposal, it is clear that the IRA has distorted three generations of the McVeigh family; the widowed mother (Brid Brennan), eternally worn and fretting about her surviving children, the McVeigh children, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), both committed IRA gunmen, and Colette, somehow reluctantly being swept along in the action. Then there’s Colette’s young son Mark, who has a bed-wetting problem, which is unsurprising, given that his mother is arrested in an early morning police raid, and not for what seems like the first time.
Marsh makes a conscious decision to highlight the internal battles between Mac and other branches of MI5, and also difficulties in establishing who was part of the IRA and who wasn’t, enabling him to highlight the potential for suspicion on both sides of the law. IRA internal investigator Kevin Mulville, played out menacingly by David Wilmot, is a dreaded, threatening presence throughout. Great cinematography frames many anxious faces, notably Colette’s, without divulging any information to the audience, and so we never really know where loyalties lie. Riseborough played Colette suberbly; secretive and silent as the threat of being discovered becomes more and more likely.
And who is the informant, the Shadow Dancer, you may ask? The film is a labyrinth tale of cat and mouse, of deception and double cross, and of betrayal and confused allegiances. The guessing game is an incredibly interesting, albeit startling, one.
- Harmony Korine Retrospective at the Star & Shadow