(M) Eagle Entertainment DVD/BD
Colette McVeigh, a single mother with connections to the IRA, is picked up and interrogated by Mi5 agents after failing to go through with a mission to plant a bomb on the London Underground.
She is given a choice between a long prison sentence and separation from her young son, or agreeing to share information on the IRA cell in which her brother is a key member.
She reluctantly chooses the latter and Shadow Dancer — a title which won’t make sense until a revelation late in the film — then follows the relationship between Colette and her Mi5 controller, Mac, as she goes about the dangerous business of being an informant.
If you want to think about it in generic terms, Shadow Dancer would be categorised as a spy thriller. But you would have to throw out a number of your preconceived notions of what a spy thriller is.
Like Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011, Shadow Dancer is a slow burning film with a steadily escalating tension rather than a roller coaster ride we expect from the majority of spy thrillers that follow the conventions established by James Bond films. Shadow Dancer moves at a very slow pace, to the point that it will be very off-putting for some viewers.
The performances are quite strong, even if the motivations for some characters are not always clear. In particular, Andrea Riseborough has earned some acclaim for her central performance as Colette. The key to her performance is the way that, while allowing us to see some of her anxieties and concerns, she manages to retain a moral mystery, which means we never really know where she stands in terms of the larger conflict.
Is she a believer in the IRA cause or obliged to play a role out of a sense of family duty or guilt? But I will admit to struggling with her character at times. I found her character so closed off, so internalised, that it became difficult to empathise with her.
Director James Marsh’s background is in documentary making — he won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2009 for Man on a Wire — and Shadow Dancer is a revealing picture in the way that it exposes the danger and volatility of life in Belfast in the 1990s. However, it fails to really give a sense of the socio-political context that explains that violence and volatility and, as a piece of entertainment, it can be a really hard slog.
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