Shadow Dancer is the latest fiction-feature from director James Marsh, who since 2005 has been alternating between documentaries of curious feats and academic obsessions (The Team, Man on Wire, Project Nim) and neo-noir/Gothic thriller-dramas (The King, Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1980). His Red Riding installment was the second in a trilogy (from David Peace’s books) about serial killings in Yorkshire, and Shadow Dancer (with Tom Bradby screen-adapting his own novel) continues Marsh’s brooding minimalism—this time just a tad further north, then west over the water and a decade on.
It’s 1993 and a Belfast nearing the end of the Troubles. Twenty years before, a young Collette McVeigh sent off her little brother in her place to get Da some “fags;” minutes later, she could only stand, staring, as his body was brought in from the street and laid on the table. Now, Collette (Andrea Riseborough), mother of a young boy, seems a reluctant, wearied “soldier” for the IRA. She’s pursued and turned by a MI5 agent, Mac (Clive Owen), who promises her no jail time and safety if she keeps feeding him information.
Marsh’s Northern Gothic UK is a place of lowering skies, grotty tiles, stucco walls and a grey brick wall whose sole opening looks out onto a grassy scrubland—some of the few jags of bright colour are the blue or red of Collette’s trench coat or, in one scene, the green, white and orange of an IRA flag draped over a coffin. Here are bare walls and bare lives and folks bearing up, barely. And if there’s a sneering nastiness to the Republican side, there’s a paper-pusher callousness to the British side, where side-deals get done in back offices. Claustrophobia walls up around Collette as death seems to be closing in—Mac says, “Nobody dies, nobody gets hurt,” but how can he ensure that when, over on the other side she knows all too well, somebody always dies or gets hurt?
The film’s explosive immediacy, sending out shards of its shadowy plot within minutes, adds to the tension. That first sequence, for instance, is expertly done—the sense of dread, of something awful imminent, even as young Collette plays with some beads on the lace-covered table, not noticing the rush of feet outside the window. Marsh is always attuning us to a sense of darkness or tension lurking, barely, beneath the non-descript. And the film plays slyly with noir—it’s easy to forget Collette’s the betraying femme fatale when she seems so grief-stricken and worried about others’ suspicion of her. Romance, though, proves a ruse; a kiss given is soon, it’s clear, a kiss of either desperation or pragmatism or both.
If, in its middle third, it lags a little, the film adroitly twists and turns away from easy expectations in its final minutes; this thriller’s got one sharp, savage ending. Shadow Dancer reels and jigs eerily between an England-run Belfast where people behind desks make life-and-death decisions and an Irish-lived Belfast of homes and pubs and flats, where a plastic sheet’s unrolled in anticipation of a body being dropped. Marsh takes a black-eyed stare out from the gravestone-gray, waning days of the Troubles, when a few hardened men and women knew nothing else but to continue a futile war to the death, a war that had sadly defined so much of their lives. V