"Shadow Dancer" Reveals Itself to be a Taut Thriller Review

Shadow Dancer is a somber thriller that takes place in the early 1990s as the Troubles in Ireland were beginning to end. (“The Troubles” refers to the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland concerning religious discrimination and the nation’s attempts to form an independent Irish Republic.) Unlike action-heavy thrillers, Dancer is more character-driven, placing the action in the protagonist’s choices (or evasion of choices) more than in the politically motivated attacks. This gives the film a quiet mood, providing a stronger contrast for the explosive and riotous moments.

Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is enmeshed in the IRA thanks to her brothers. When she gets arrested for being involved in an aborted IRA bomb attack in London, she is offered a chance at redemption. She must chose between going to prison for 25 years (thereby abandoning her son) or returning to Belfast to spy on her family. Naturally, she chooses the latter (otherwise this wouldn’t be a very interesting thriller).

Her handler is MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen) who requires weekly meetings with her to get updates on potential IRA attacks. Collette is naturally hesitant to reveal any information, but when the threat of imprisonment is thrown in her face once again, she spills the beans on an assassination attempt. From then on, she walks a precarious line with her increasingly suspicious family.

While her brother Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) is a nice enough fellow, it is her mistrustful brother Gerry (Aidan Gillen) whom Collette fears. He is dead set on proving that Collette is an informant, going to malicious lengths to get the answers he wants. And although Mac has promised her protection in exchange for information, he begins to see that politics within MI5 itself threaten her security, raising his own stakes in her life.

The film has an almost painfully slow build, as the character of Collette and her precarious predicament are developed. The camera contemplatively follows Collette, trying to pierce her impenetrable mind (Riseborough does a commendable job of conveying everything and nothing with her dead-eyed looks). If this seems vastly unlike other spy thrillers, it can be attributed to director James Marsh, known more for his work as a documentary filmmaker than dramatic storytelling. His attention to authenticity elevates the believability of the film and is reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger (another contemplative film dealing with the IRA).

But it’s more than just the acting that gives the film its somber feel. There’s a grey overcast that descends over everything in the film, from the settings to the costumes. This allows certain elements to stand out more. Costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan pairs Collette with a shockingly red coat that makes her stand out from everyone else (both symbolically and literally—no wonder Gerry believes her to be so guilty). Bright color, though, becomes more distracting as concerns Gillian Anderson’s very blonde hair (she plays Mac’s MI5 boss), definitively setting her apart from the Irish characters in the film. Also, the sudden emergence of turquoise-colored clothing makes part of the climactic sequence disorienting.

Marsh’s quest for authenticity is ever apparent in the technology of the film as well. As Mac hacks away at an ancient looking PC, you begin to wonder if his character was named ironically. It also provides a greater appreciation for both technological advancements and for certain difficulties that arise in the film (if Collette had had a cell phone, how much different would things have ended up?). Even the technology in Cold War thrillers has an exotic nature, giving this film an even starker contrast with its low-grade vibe.

But for all its slow pacing and bleak visuals, Shadow Dancer packs in a few twists at the end that make the drudge of the beginning worthwhile. If you think you have figured out how certain characters will act, you must remember that these are terrorists and spies and, thusly, a double-cross is always lurking around the corner. So don’t get too comfortable in your seats, because there’s a decidedly exciting moment in the film that literally made the audience jump in their seats. And those final twists in the end will have you wondering (in a positive way) about character motivation for the rest of the day.

"Shadow Dancer" opens May 31, 2013 and is not rated. Thriller. Directed by James Marsh. Written by Tom Bradby. Starring Aidan Gillen, Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson.

John Keith • Staff Writer

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