MRR Review: "Shadow Dancer"

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Set in 1990s Belfast, an active member of the IRA becomes an informant for MI5 in order to protect her son's welfare. Barry Barnes, Maria Laird, Ben Smyth, and Brid Brennan star. James Marsh directs.
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MRR Review: "Shadow Dancer"

-- Rating: R (strong language and violent content)
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 24, 2012
Directed by: James Marsh
Genre: Drama, Thriller

Acclaimed for such films as "Project Nim" and "Man on Wire," filmmaker James Marsh rises to the occasion once again with this superbly directed movie, "Shadow Dancer." The screenplay and its preceding novel were written by ITV journalist Tom Bradby. The timing couldn't be better for a movie depicting the IRA in the 1990s, with a span of eighteen years having passed since a cease-fire was declared. Bradby contends the idea for "Shadow Dancer" had simply been culminating in his mind for the past two decades. Whatever the case may be, this powerful drama is worth the wait.

Andrea Riseborough stars in "Shadow Dancer" and is known for her work in the haunting science-fiction movie "Never Let Me Go" and the 2010 crime thriller "Brighton Rock." In "Shadow Dancer," Riseborough plays the part of Colette McVeigh, a single mother living with her fanatically Republican family. Colette's brothers are heavily involved with the IRA.

The movie begins with a twenty-minute prelude of Colette's life as a young girl in 1973 Belfast. The reverie shows the girl's father giving her the task of running an errand. Colette, in turn, delegates the chore to her little brother. As the boy leaves home to run the errand, a skirmish involving civilians and soldiers ensues in the street. The little boy is hit by a stray bullet from the crossfire. The next scene shows his lifeless body being carried into the house. The movie jumps to Belfast in 1993 and now-adult Colette carefully carrying a case with her. She places it on a staircase in the subway before quickly retreating. The audience instinctively knows that the case holds a bomb.

When Colette's bomb attempt fails, she is abruptly caught by an MI5 agent named Mac. The part of Mac is played by ruggedly charming Clive Owen, who is known for his intense performances in such films as "Gosford Park" and "Larry," the latter of which earned Owen a Golden Globe Award. Once Mac takes Colette into custody, he wastes no time before plying her to do his bidding. He even makes a shocking declaration that her little brother was actually killed by an IRA bullet. Colette is given the choice between being imprisoned for twenty-five years or becoming Mac's informant while spying on her own family. Faced with the prospect of separation from her son, Colette chooses to infiltrate her family.

The agreement between Mac and Colette guarantees suspense and intrigue for the remainder of the movie, and the plot is certainly intense. However, Marsh chooses to create a subdued atmosphere for the viewers. The entire film is downbeat and quiet. Marsh's tactics for setting the mood include long scenes without dialogue, closeups of Colette's pale and somber features, grim scenery cast in grayish colors, and the heart-wrenching dejectedness of Colette's mother, who is simply known as Ma (Brid Brennan). Colette's strongly protective brother, Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), is a sad soul. Seething anger caused by his opposition to a proposed treaty and fierce ideology give Colette's brother, Gerry (Aidan Gillen), a vitriolic demeanor. Everything about "Shadow Dancer" lends to the sobering tone while the tension keeps to a low, steady hum.

Throughout Colette's time as a spy, she encounters suspicion from both sides. Colette, herself, seems unsure about every decision she makes. Riseborough's versatility shines as she portrays a woman who has subversion thrust upon her. Riseborough's performance, combined with the atmosphere set by Marsh, does an exemplary job of deflecting the audience's judgment of Colette. No motivation exists to debate her moral standards. That absence of motive, reinforced by Riseborough's talented portrayal, thickens the air of mystery.

In the film, Colette is introduced as a child who suffered a trauma caused by the Troubles. Shortly thereafter, the implication is made that her ambivalence toward bombing the subway stems from guilt over her brother's death rather than staunch support for the IRA. Colette's collusion with Mac is a display of resignation over her circumstances rather than an act of treason. The movie strongly parallels how citizens of Northern Ireland must have felt during the Troubles, when terrorism and espionage were becoming routine in people's lives. Violence was a necessary evil. Just like Colette hoped for a peaceful end to her situation, so did the people of Ireland. By 1993, the anticipated end was in sight. John Major had replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, renewing hope for negotiations. There were ongoing talks of peace among leaders and the declaration of a cease-fire agreement was looming.

Under James Marsh's direction, the cast of "Shadow Dancer" summon their talents to create a thrilling experience for moviegoers. Bradby's screenplay perfectly complements the tone set by Marsh. Riseborough and Owens are exceptional together. Every character in the film is made memorable through stellar acting and wonderful chemistry.

Rating: 3 out of 5