Tightrope of sus­pense

Marsh’s ten­sile thriller is as riv­et­ing as his ac­claimed doc­u­men­taries, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

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

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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

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