James Marsh’s IRA thriller is an accomplished, slow-burning drama
Like the late Alan Clarke’s remarkable television film Elephant, which depicted a series of senseless killings in Northern Ireland during the era of the so-called Troubles, director James Marsh’s Belfast-set drama shows sectarian murders being perpetrated in domestic suburban locations.
Andrea Riseborough excels in the lead role of Colette, a member of an IRA active service unit in 1993, who is arrested mid-mission by the British authorities in London. She is given a stark choice by Clive Owen’s MI5 officer Mac: either she returns to her mother (Brid Brennan) in West Belfast and secretly informs on the movements of her own IRA-combatant brothers (Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson), or she will be sent to an English jail, and thus separated from her young son.
Scripted by ITV news correspondent Tom Bradby from his novel, Shadow Dancer sidesteps many of the clichés of films relating to this particular armed conflict. Restraint is the key word here, not just in the ensemble performances, but also in the slow-burning pacing and the film’s precise mise-en-scène, with its muted colours and claustrophobic interior settings. Although this story takes place at a specific historical moment in Ulster, before the peace process has been officially announced, its portrait of an individual coerced into betraying everything they hold dear possesses a universal relevance. Credit too to Marsh, best known for his documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, for providing a suitably downbeat resolution.
Showing at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Fri 29 & Sat 30 Jun.