Friday, June 14, 2013
"Man on Wire" and "Project Nim" documentarian James Marsh resumes the feature director's chair for "Shadow Dancer," a quiet and understated - and modestly effective - thriller set in Belfast.
Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough, lately of "Oblivion") was born into the IRA. Her brothers remain zealous, but she'd rather focus on her young son. They recruit her to plant a bomb at a London underground station, but when that mission ends abortively, MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a no-choice choice: lose her son and spend the next 25 years to life in prison, or spy on her family and report to him every week.
There are some clever twists in the story. The police thwart a planned IRA attack, and Collette is one of a small handful of people who had advance knowledge of it. Another man asks how she could be arrested for the botched bombing and back in Belfast in time for the queen's tea. There's real tension as to whether Collette will be found out, and a surprising and ingenious late twist involving the identity of a second inside source who's been paid for years by Mac's superiors at MI5 (including Gillian Anderson in a nice turn as his direct supervisor).
It's the very quietness and subtlety of the film that gives it what impact it achieves. Like most films set in Ireland, "Shadow Dancer" would benefit from subtitles (we get them on about 1 in 10 UK films, and I'm always grateful); at times, you have to live with getting the music if not all the words. And Marsh seems almost ashamed of the halfhearted attempt at a love story, which doesn't work at all. At one point, Anderson asks Owen whether he'd sacrifice their whole investigation for a "pretty face." A pretty face Riseborough is not - at least not here. Alabaster skin, little or no makeup, bags under her eyes. She's pretty mies.