Review: Shadow Dancer (Sundance 2012)
PLOT: In 1990's Belfast, an active member of the IRA, Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is turned into an informer by a British agent (Clive Owen) who threatens to take her away from her son.
REVIEW: Director James Marsh is mostly known for his documentaries, such as MAN ON A WIRE, and the recent PROJECT NIM. However, he's proven himself just as adept at drama, with his work on RED RIDING 1980 being a standout. Here, he tackles his most ambitious project to date- a thriller set in the IRA underground, juxtaposed against the mid-90's Belfast peace talks.
Rather than turn the film into a sprawling thriller, Marsh's approach with SHADOW DANCER is intimate and reserved. Rather than focus on the cause itself, SHADOW DANCER attempts to stay apolitical. Both sides of the struggle are portrayed humanely. Risenborough's Colette is a struggling single mother, drawn into the fray as a youngster when her little brother was killed by a stray bullet in a shootout with English soldiers. Now older and wiser, Colette's become less concerned with the politics of her organization, and more with the fact that she's a single mother struggling to raise her young son, while dealing with her two remaining brothers- who are squarely rooted in the cause.
This makes her the perfect informer for Owen's Mac, who threatens to take her son away after she's caught doing some dirty business for the IRA higher-ups. Being a somewhat impartial film, Owen's Mac is also portrayed very sympathetically, with him being a decent guy that truly wants to do right by Colette and her son, putting him at odds with his colder superiors- represented by his boss Kate (Gillan Anderson) whose ambitions lead her to regard Colette as little more than a cog in the machine- who should be discarded once her supply of information has been exhausted.
Marsh's slow, deliberate approach to the material may put off some, as there's not much action- with most of the film being confined to characters talking in rooms. In that way, it's similar to the recent TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, and like that film, you probably won't mind the talkiness as the story is so engrossing.
Also helping matters enormously is that the acting is superb. Riseborough, whose recent turn in Madonna's WE put her squarely on the map as a rising star, proves her versatility as the sympathetic Colette, who possesses a dangerous reserve that only becomes apparent later in the film. She's excellent, and it's obvious that she's someone we'll be seeing a lot of over the next few years.
Supporting Riseborough is Clive Owen, in his most effective role in years. Owen's always been one of my favourite actors and someone who I never felt got his proper due. He's excellent as the conflicted British agent, who's maybe too nice a guy to be working in such a cold-blooded business. This is a perfect role for Owen, and I hope he does more films like this in the future.
Special mention also has to be made of Gillian Anderson, who's been having a nice little career in the UK ever since THE X-FILES went off the air. She pulls off a pitch perfect accent as Owen's cold-blooded superior, and while her screen-time is limited, Anderson makes the most of it.
So, while SHADOW DANCER's methodical pace may mean it's not quite for everyone, those willing to dig into a thriller that's light on thrills, but high on intrigue will surely enjoy it. I certainly did, and it was a unique addition to the Sundance slate of films.