Tightrope of suspense
Marsh’s tensile thriller is as riveting as his acclaimed documentaries, writes Donald Clarke
DOMESTIC READERS will find themselves labouring with a peculiar class of tension while enduring the opening scenes proper of this fine thriller from the talented James Marsh.
Following a prologue set in 1970s Belfast, we join Colette McVeigh as, 20 years later, she rides the London Underground. The camera prods at her in such as way as to suggest she might be carrying what we used to call a “suspect device”. Eventually, after abandoning the bomb, she is apprehended and brought to meet
an MI5 operative. She opens her mouth to speak.
It’s a beautifully modulated sequence. All furtive glances and gnawed lips, Andrea Riseborough effectively telegraphs the torment that is eating up Colette. The hotel to which she is brought has a net-curtained corporate feel that radiates mid-afternoon nausea. In his second dramatic feature, the director of stunning documentaries such as Project Nim and Man on Wire confirms that he has the chops for the thriller genre.
We are, however, brooding on another source of tension. The long sequence is entirely wordless and, through it all, the average Irish cinemagoer will be on the edge of his or her seat wondering if Riseborough – star of WE and Never Let Me Go – can manage the Northern Irish accent. Many have fallen before, but Andrea pulls it off. It’s a very fine performance. At times, she’s a bit too well-groomed for life in an ordinary Belfast house, but she is impressively desperate and divided throughout.
Clive Owen is hard-faced and efficient as Mac, the security operative who persuades Colette to return to the North and act as an informer. Her brother Gerry (Aiden Gillen, perhaps inevitably) is the head of an IRA cell that – while hints of political concessions creep in – is still carrying out assassinations in the Belfast area. Colette, compromised by her need to protect her young son, aches as the information is dragged from her reluctant frame.
As events progress, however, it begins to looks as if the security force’s scheme is more slippery than we initially suspected. Might there be another mole in the family?
Based on a novel by Tom Bradby, the former Northern Irish correspondent for ITN, Shadow Dancer’s MI5 are just as cynical as their MI6 counterparts in the novels of John le Carré. It would be stretching it to say that film-makers draw a moral equivalency between paramilitary and security services. But none of the combatants emerges well from this particular looking-glass war.
Rob Hardy, who shot Marsh’s episode in Channel 4’s brilliant Red Road trilogy, brings the same degree of murky underwater gloom to the suffocating images here. Filmed largely in Dublin, Shadow Dancer does not offer an entirely convincing depiction of Belfast before the ceasefire, but the picture succeeds by substituting fuggy atmosphere for verisimilitude.
It also helps that Marsh has been able to call on such a strong supporting cast. Domhnall Gleeson, now nearly as busy as his dad, manages to find time to offer a touching performance as Colette’s younger, less confident brother. The mighty, indestructible Bríd Brennan just about escapes “Irish mammy” clichés as the resilient head of the McVeigh clan.
The film does suffer from a classic problem in the whodunnit genre. As events wear on, and the suspects wither away, the identity of the second informer becomes blindingly obvious to any viewer paying even a modicum of attention. This is a minor issue. Though reluctant to engage too closely with the still-controversial politics of dissent, Shadow Dancer works brilliantly as a displaced espionage drama.
Let’s hope the subject matter won’t scare off the punters. That does tend to happen.
Andrea Riseborough: effectively telegraphs the torment that is eating up Colette