Hot off the heals of his masterful documentary Project Nim, James Marsh presents a simmering thriller of political revenge with Shadow Dancer, a story of one family’s decent into the arms of the IRA after a brother and son was slain in the cross fire. Marsh’s versatility is on display here as he slowly ramps up the tension to a surprisingly interfolded climax that bucks traditional Hollywood conventions in favor of the remorseless verity that British films are often known for.
After witnessing the death of her brother as a child, Collette (Andrea Riseborough) and her surviving family have pledged their devotion to the IRA as a means of revenge. Now a single mother herself, Collette is abruptly entrapped after an aborted subway bombing. Mac (Clive Owen), an MI5 officer, gives her two options â€“ become an informant for the benefit of British Intelligence, or face an amplitude of prison time that leaves her son to fend for himself. She begrudgingly accepts the former, but under the pressure of her unknowing brothers and her wisely suspicious boss, her allegiance is seriously tested. After months of trying to recruit Collette, Mac finds himself at odds with his fellow officers when he discovers that he and his new informant might be thrown under the bus for reasons withheld from him. As the case progresses, he catches himself going beyond the pale for this woman for no other reason than her pretty face. Though this character flaw doesn’t stand alone as a misstep in direction, it is the film’s glaring oddity in relation to the story by and large.
With a pair of taut performances by Owen and Riseborough as the cat and mouse, the film tensely progresses forward, slowly revealing a network of internal secrets on both sides of the battle that leave nearly everyone perpetually vulnerable. Family ties are tested under violent scrutiny, as strings are pulled for covert security clearance that perplexedly unveils both the truth behind the entire operation, and a man manipulated by forbidden attraction. Despite these auspiciously suspenseful peaks and the natural twisting, turning nature of the tail, Marsh’s creation lacks the true ferocity it needs to ascend from thrill seeking mediocrity to cinematic greatness. As is, Shadow Dancer falls somewhere in between, a seething potboiler built on bloodlines that never blows the lid off.
Reviewed on January 30 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival â€“ PREMIERES Programme.