Having seen and enjoyed James Marsh’s documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, I was excited to see him handle a fiction film. Shadow Dancer did not disappoint. Marsh’s documentary background shines through – he seems to capture rather than direct his characters, and his contemplative style renders a slow-burning political drama which never strays too far into the genre conventions that might otherwise dent its integrity.
Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is a young mother from an IRA family in the Belfast of the early 1990s. Captured by MI5, she is persuaded to turn informant in order to protect her son. Through contact with her handler Mac (Clive Owen), she relays information of planned attacks to the British, and must deal with her conflicting emotions and loyalties. Riseborough is a revelation. I have grown to dislike her since her turns in Brighton Rock and W.E., but her performance as Colette is something of a saving grace, and hints at a talent far greater than we have yet seen.
The rest of the impressive cast is utilised less well. Gillian Anderson, one of my favourite actresses, is afforded perhaps five minutes screen time as Mac’s difficult superior Kate Fletcher. Aiden Gillen, though virtually unrecognisable from his Queer as Folk days, is never given the opportunity to demonstrate his range as Colette’s eldest brother, Gerry. Conversely Clive Owen, whose acting prowess I have never been quite convinced of, gets more than his fair share of scenes devoted mostly to him typing on archaic PCs.
But none of these characters really matter. Kate and Mac are irrelevant because they are British; Gerry is irrelevant because he is male. Shadow Dancer is the story of Irish women, and its importance lies not in its depiction of the Provisional IRA (which it never correctly names), nor in its exploration of terrorism and the secret service (which presumes perhaps a little too much knowledge on the audience’s part), but rather in its mission to elevate the women of Ireland beyond the confines of the ‘Colleen’ stereotype. It is with this in mind that Brid Brennan’s powerfully understated performance as Colette’s mother (known only as ‘Ma’) becomes key. These women are polar opposites. Colette walks the streets of Belfast in a red raincoat and blue skirt, a volatile beacon of Britain, a ticking time bomb in an Ireland that remains, even among the prefab housing and industrial estates, conspicuously green. Ma, meanwhile, is photographed almost in greyscale – her peppered hair, sallow skin and drab clothes make her almost invisible. Yet both women fight, in various capacities, not for the love of their country, but for their sons. One scene in particular cements this as the film’s true message: Colette’s brothers Gerry and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) have brought her son Mark a bicycle for his birthday. As they teach him to ride, Colette and Ma look on, the former contemplating the life which awaits her son, the latter seeing her boys already lost to her. Shadow Dancer does not presume to preach or take sides. Its impartiality is vital in universalising its core: the wanton futility of death and the strength of a mother’s love.
Words: Jack Casey