Film review: ‘Shadow Dancer’ takes on the Irish Troubles

Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough sit on either side of the IRA tussle in "Shadow Dancer." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough sit on either side of the IRA tussle in “Shadow Dancer.”
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

‘Shadow Dancer’
Director: James Marsh
Stars: Angela Riseborough, Clive Owen
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

In the IRA saga “Shadow Dancer,” rising English star Andrea Riseborough (late of “Oblivion”) delivers what might as well be termed “The Heath Ledger Performance.” Like his performance in “Brokeback Mountain,” hers is completely internalized, free of emotion. It’s not that she feels nothing or has no inner life, but rather that all feelings are locked inside the body. The audience is reduced to scanning her stony exterior for signs of life, fruitlessly and fascinatingly.

There’s a reason for her opacity: Her character Colette has been traumatized into working for the IRA. An opening set in 1973 finds her little brother accidentally killed during an attack. This hardens her enough that, 20 years later, she plants a bomb in a subway station. Colette’s plan is thwarted and she’s carted off by authorities, at which point Mac (Clive Owen), an intense but rugged MI5 officer, finds her weak spot: She has a young son. She finds herself in an impossible situation, having to choose between losing her son and ratting out her connected family.

Like most films on the Irish Troubles, “Shadow Dancer” takes a neutral stance. But it doesn’t hold back on depicting the brutishness on both sides. Both the IRA and the MI5 act like mafia thugs; if they’re not torturing people physically, they’re doing it psychologically. Director James Marsh, a part-time documentarian who made “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim,” offers a cool, detached tone that’s nonetheless sick with claustrophobic dread. For most of the length there doesn’t appear to be any way out for Colette, nor for anyone else. There are no good guys, not even the woman afraid to lose her son.

“Shadow Dancer” lets the impossibility of the situation sit there for most of its length, before a more or less sudden shock twist. It’s a thinking person’s thriller, but it could stand to be if not more taut, then at least more probing. Riseborough is effortlessly fantastic, and she has a vulnerable, pouty look that clashes nicely with how little vulnerability she tries to convey. But the film spends a lot of its length stalled and can’t help but trade in stock situations. The evolution of Colette and Mac’s relationship — is it interrogation… or is it love? — breaks up the slight monotony, but it’s an element from a less smart picture.


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