"This should be a tense and absorbing thriller, yet instead it deviates down the more drama-inclined path, pensive in its approach..."
Stepping out of the world of documentary making, director James Marsh - who won both an Oscar and BAFTA for the brilliant Man on Wire - turns his hand to drama in his latest project Shadow Dancer.
Set in Belfast in the early 1990s - we follow Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother and active member of the IRA, who is caught red handed when attempting to bomb a London underground station. Handling the case is Mac (Clive Owen), who rather than send Colette to jail, instead persuades her to become an informant for M15 and help assist the ongoing battle against terrorism.
Colette returns home where she must report to Mac on a weekly basis and fill him in on any ongoing and potential attacks, which would mean incriminating her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) who are heavily involved in the IRA's business. Colette then has a predicament on her hands as she must decide whether she will inform M15 of her family’s activity, or refuse and risk being sent to prison and thus abandoning her young son.
Despite the fascinating premise of Shadow Dancer, unfortunately the picture fails to live up to the compelling narrative that exists. By rights this should be a tense and absorbing thriller, yet instead it deviates down the more drama-inclined path, pensive in its approach. In this respect, Shadow Dancer is a somewhat unfulfilling movie.
Marsh delves into a captivating time in modern British history, and from a factual sense it gets everything spot on and tells the story almost as if it were true, and it comes as a surprise to learn that this story is entirely fictional. Marsh's background in documentary making becomes increasingly palpable, as there is something hauntingly realistic about this film. However we don't truly get a sense of the futility of the time and the terrorism that swept fear over Britain, unlike Steve McQueen's Hunger, for example, which excels in just that.
However to match Marsh's naturalistic feeling to this picture, Riseborough turns in a fantastic performance as our protagonist. Safely erasing any demons that existed on the back of her performance in Madonna's W.E., Riseborough manages to depict a character that is as much of a victim as she is a perpetrator, which is no easy task. She may portray vulnerability and weakness, but she is equally as believable as a terrorist as she certainly has an evil streak about her, capable of such merciless acts.
It's interesting to see the lead role being that of a terrorist. We're so often made to root for the good guys it's somewhat refreshing to follow the story through the eyes of the antagonist. However as a result we simply don't feel enough empathy for the character of Colette. Her safety isn't particularly important to the audience - a sentiment extended to the supporting cast too. We need to care for the characters to maximise the films conclusion but instead when everything unfolds it's all just a bit blasé.
Shadow Dancer is a strong study of character and a film of gripping moments, but ultimately it's lacking in consistent intensity and emotion and as a result is all too forgettable. However I do look forward to Marsh's next feature film, although one can't help but hope it's a documentary.