Directed by James Marsh
Written by Tom Bradby
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2012, UK, Ireland
There’s no real reason to believe that the artistry required in the making of a documentary is vastly different to that required in the making of a fictional narrative. Nonetheless it is always interesting to watch filmmakers transition from one to the other, sometimes permanently, sometimes as one-off dabblings. Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, both consummate documentarians, have been swinging back and forth between both forms for as long as they’ve been making films, and to the benefit of both their filmographies there has been some very productive crossbreeding during the span of their respective careers. Then you have those old and new masters of fictional narrative filmmaking, from Antonioni and Resnais to the Dardennes, who cut their teeth making documentaries before they settled on crafting their own very particular realities, while the Wisemans and Morrises presumably saw and still see limitless potential in the documentary format. Finally, there are the younger filmmakers still in the process of exploring their craft, artists like Argentine Celina Murga who’s recent and inaugural foray into documentary production, Normal School, is compelling content wise but leaves much to be desired from a pure filmmaking standpoint. 2008’s Man on Wire is a ridiculously beloved documentary and, from memory, part of the acclaim heaped upon it was due to director James Marsh’s elegantly inventive way of recreating an event of which the only visual documentation in existence (or at least available to filmmakers) were evocatively grainy still photographs of Philippe Petit treading a tightrope strung up between New York’s twin towers in 1974. Intercutting these with talking heads and artfully staged re-enactments of the actual events, Marsh managed to craft an engrossing and often suspenseful piece of film.
With Shadow Dancer, Marsh embarks on his second narrative feature with a brooding piece of historical fiction. Set primarily in Belfast circa 1993, Shadow Dancer centres on Colette McVeigh, a young single mother who finds herself a soldier for the IRA, involved in activities deemed by the British government to be of a terrorist nature. In an utterly predictable opening sequence, screenwriter Tom Bradby (adapting his own novel) and Marsh station us in 1973 Belfast where a young Colette’s adamant belief that it’s her younger brother’s turn to go out and buy their father a pack of “fags” results in tragedy befalling the family, an event which ostensibly drives her and her surviving brothers Gerry and Connor, and much of the family, into the ranks of the Irish Republican Army. For many reasons, but mainly for the fact that the IRA have always been fiery proponents of their cause on legitimate political grounds, this sequence feels barely necessary in establishing the fierce motivation and headstrong antagonism of the McVeigh family, nor is it a vital means of foreshadowing the bruised ambivalence of Colette as she is trapped between two opposing forces for much of the film. To be honest, for such a scene to be depended upon to bolster this essential piece of backstory, it would help if the scene itself didn’t feel as though its primary purpose was to lay emotional groundwork. It rings terribly of “plot device”.
Clive Owen, in one of those intriguing roles that takes a strapping male star and turns him into a disenchanted, sleep-deprived, middle-aged public servant with a bit of a paunch, is reliably tense as Mac, an MI5 operative whose team nabs Colette early in the film shortly after she makes an intercepted bomb drop in the London Tube. Using her young son’s safety as a bargaining ploy, Mac attempts to recruit Colette as an informant, offering her two options: cooperation or deep trouble. Reluctantly she agrees, but she is of two minds and two hearts, and to this conflict her ultimate response is emotional remove. But this film would not be the pseudo-espionage thriller that it is without the twist. As Mac becomes increasingly invested in protecting Colette, whether from a purely professional standpoint of due to some burgeoning emotional attachment, he uncovers some strange dealings within MI5, dealing which are a direct threat to Colette’s safety. If Clive Owen looks disillusioned at the beginning of the film, what he is at the end of it is simply heartbreaking.
For a filmmaker accustomed to fashioning narrative and thematic harmony from disparate bits and pieces of evidence and hearsay, Marsh’s approach is refreshingly elegant and assuredly so. He is not afraid of images, and seems to have enough trust in their potency to let them breathe a little. Editorially he is no Bela Tarr, but he is a far, far cry from Michael Bay or Tony Scott. The visual style has a very particular look common, of late, to British productions of a similar bent; hazy and grainy with a loose centre of focus and a bias towards the gently handheld aesthetic. It reminds one of the kind of dirty nostalgia that the Red Riding trilogy is soaked in: displaying a weird longing for the anxiety and oppressive socio-political atmosphere of certain eras past, the moral murkiness and sense that everything could go belly up at any moment.
Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Colette circa 1993 is subdued but emotionally charged nonetheless. What makes her a compelling protagonist is her almost absolute lack of anything upon which a viewer can hang their confidence. With her wispy frame, milkmaid prettiness and her doleful expression, Colette’s strength as an individual is derived more from her stoicism than anything else, a stoicism clearly not borne of some inability to emote. Her utter terror at the situation she is in is deadly apparent in her moments alone, but when faced with the insistent demands of Mac or the gentle but hawk-eyed suspicion of bloodthirsty IRA enforcer Kevin (David Wilmot in a creepily considerate performance), Colette is a stone wall. There are moments, though, when this wall is tested, and it is a tad surprising when the clear cracks in it either go unnoticed or are underestimated and ignored. In particular, there is one tense scene during which Colette’s safety is at real risk. How she navigates this situation unscathed is still somewhat puzzling, even after further thought.
Watching Shadow Dancer is one of those discomfiting film-going experiences during which the stuff being reflected off the screen at you is hard to fault, not the style nor the story nor the score, and certainly not the performances. But even as all these elements work together harmoniously to produce a solid piece of cinema, there is something slightly rote about it. Frankly, Marsh is too talented a director to deliver a film severely lacking in the direction department, and the more one thinks about it the more the writing surfaces as Shadow Dancer’s unfortunate snag. Bradby’s screenplay is by most accounts a fine piece of screenwriting. As a narrative, the film is compelling and at times mildly thrilling. As a character piece, it is perhaps a little thinly sketched but forgivably so. Of assistance to Bradby in this department are the fine acting chops of the likes of Aiden Gillen (probably best known as Tommy Carcetti in The Wire or as Game of Throne’s Petyr Baelish) who plays the resolute, single-minded Gerry, and Domhnall Gleeson as the fiery younger brother Connor. Dialogue-wise, Bradby’s words adopt a unique cadence and dialect, to the film’s credit. In principle, that is. Admittedly, the audio during my screening did this strongly-accented, vernacular-laden dialogue no favours being, frankly, too generous in both volume and bass. Had this not been an issue, I image the authenticating effects of having a very specific voice would have heightened the reality of the film, which is honestly quite strong nonetheless. Unfortunately, as the film chugs towards its conclusion, it begins to resemble “spy thriller” in the way its various narrative threads are very pragmatically resolved, as though someone had been standing on the production’s sidelines saying “okay, let’s wrap it up, wrap it up”; let’s not speculate who. This is made all the more depressing when you realise that Shadow Dancer continues to look, feel and behave like the sophisticated film that it could have been, should have been, and at times was.