Films about the Northern Irish “troubles” have never really appealed to me. The conflict was always something that existed in the background of my youth on television news, but I was too young and never really interested in politics to understand or want to pay attention. None of the films I have seen that cover this turbulent time have stuck with me and I never make any special effort to watch them. So it was unusual for Shadow Dancer's trailer to appeal to me, yet I still had my doubts about it.
Set in nineties Belfast, the film concerns IRA member Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) who reluctantly gets turned by Clive Owens’ British government agent, forcing her to become an informant on those closest to her, particularly her brothers Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) who are both strongly committed to the cause. But suspicions start to arise from other members that something is not quite right somewhere within. Principally this is a pretty straight forward set-up, but there is something to this.
Shadow Dancer excels when Riseborough is on the screen. I hadn’t liked her in either of the previous films I’d seen her in (Never Let Me Go and Brighton Rock), but here she is the core and heart of the film and is excellent. Driven by a need to protect her immediate family she is torn by the dichotomy of having to betray some to do so, as well as grasping how this impacts on her political beliefs. She seems lost in this problem and it’s difficult to judge her decisions when any one could ultimately be worth her life. Riseborough is both thoroughly convincing and compelling and holds the film together. All the scenes set amongst the IRA members and the politics are where the film is at its best and most interesting.
On the flip side the film fails to sustain interest when it reverts to Owen and his governmental wranglings, as this side of the story is steeped in procedural cliché and feels flat. Owen is adequate in the role but doesn’t offer anything that he hasn’t done elsewhere - I honestly felt like I could’ve been watching something like The International, that’s how untransmutable he seemed here. However his first scenes are strong, as are the quietly thrilling first ten or fifteen minutes. The film does manage to pull from some slightly different genres with a lot of human drama, politics, some tension and good thriller elements. James Marsh directed the film well. The supporting cast is decent too and particularly of note is David Wilmot who plays Kevin, a more senior IRA member whom Collette appears to be accountable too. He is very successfully unnerving and you're never certain what he’s going to do exactly.
Shadow Dancer manages to tread the right line between politics, decent drama and thrills. For a film of this nature it would be too easy to make it a heavy political study or an over the top action film / thriller, but it works because it's intelligent and there’s real human drama ensconced within this. In fact the main reason it works is Riseborough. A lesser performance would’ve put more light on the weaker police procedural side of the film, but it’s easier to overlook that aspect because of what the rest of it delivers. I'm pleased to say Shadow Dancer left me pleasantly surprised.