While its story has a specific background, “Shadow Dancer” focuses on the universal human toil observed inside the murky world where trust can be dangerous and expose can be fatal. It is a slow, quiet thriller which may require you a certain amount of patience at the beginning, but it diligently builds the story and the characters around its stark world, and the tension gets more accumulated as the sense of danger feels more palpable around its sad, desperate heroine.
The movie begins its story with the opening sequence in Belfast, Northern Island in 1973. When her father asked her to go outside and buy a pack of cigarettes for him, Colette sent her little brother instead, and that small decision was led to a tragic incident which changed not only her life but also her family’s life forever. This sequence begins with the mundane atmosphere of normal family life, but, as the camera patiently observes young Colette being occupied with making a necklace with beads, the tension subtly arises until she finally sees what has happened because of her casual decision.
It was a turbulent time when Northern Island suffered from the ethno-nationalistic conflict which is commonly called “The Troubles”. The situation was still volatile even when this conflict was near its last chapter and the negotiation was on the process in 1993, and we see adult Colette, played by Andrea Riseborough, doing her latest mission as an IRA member. She walks into the London underground, and she is about to drop a bag containing time bomb at certain point.
She does the job as ordered, but she does not succeed because she is already being watched by the British government agents. She is swiftly arrested as soon as she comes out of the subway station, and then she is taken to a hotel room monitored by the agents including Mac(Clive Owen), who has an offer she cannot refuse. Because she is closely associated with other high-ranking IRA members including her two brothers Gerry(Aidan Gillen) and Connor(Domhnall Gleeson), she can be a useful informer for them; if she refuses to cooperate with them, she will be incarcerated and mistreated in prison.
Although she does not seem to be persuaded at first, Colette comes to accept Mac’s offer because she deeply cares about her young son, who is probably only bright light in her drab daily life. She and her son live with her mother, and her brothers occasionally visit their house, but their interactions do not have much intimacy because of their long involvement with IRA. While they are nice uncles to their young nephew, Gerry and Connor more look like Colette’s superiors rather than loving brothers. Their mother(Brid Brennan) seems to care a lot about her children, but she remains calm and distant in the background while doing her housework. It seems that she knows well what they are doing but she does not want to talk about it – and they don’t want that either for their security.
Although the start is shaky, Colette becomes a good informer to Mac. They routinely make secret contacts at the coast, and the information given by her helps his agency preventing an assassination attempt at one point. The high-ranking IRA members like Kevin(David Wilmot) are naturally suspicious about this failure, and Kevin is not someone you can elude easily if he smells something fishy. There is a tense moment when he takes Colette to a shabby apartment along with his trusted man, and it is very apparent to her and us what he will do once he concludes that she is lying and must be taken care of immediately.
Facing such perilous situations like that, Colette defiantly and passively keeps her exhausted face straight for not reveling anything to the people around her, Andrea Riseborough gives a nicely understated performance which slowly holds our attention while conveying the desperation beneath her striking red coat. She and other performers playing Colette’s family members look believable as the family being desolated by their volatile environment and themselves, and the movie provides a small insightful moment of Colette and her mother and other women wearily watching the people clash with the police during the funeral of a recently deceased IRA member.
On the opposite, Clive Owen plays a government agent getting frustrated about his work while trying to protect his informer. He is sincere when he promises safety to Colette, but he soon faces his limit in the system as he tries to shield her from the immediate danger. His icy direct boss(Gillian Anderson) and other people in his agency do not tell everything to him, and it seems they are hiding some crucial information about their operation from him. Owen is on his usual gloomy tough guy mode, but this dependable actor is good as usual, and his private scenes with Riseborough are handled well except few missteps.
The director James Marsh is mostly known to us through his Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire”(2008) or recent documentary like “Project Nim”(2011), but he is also a good movie director as shown in the second part of chilling crime thriller saga “The Red Riding Trilogy”(2009). The suspense in the movie is well-maintained under his deft direction, and its low-key thriller plot of the screenplay written by Tom Brandy(it is based on his novel) is absorbing with some foreshadowing and following surprises. This is a standard stuff, but it is a good one anyway.