Following his thrilling, emotional, award-nominated documentary work, director James Marsh makes the leap into fiction filmmaking with BBC Films’ production of Shadow Dancer.
The Project Nim and Man On Wire creator tells the story of Colette McVaigh (Andrea Riseborough), a Belfast mother apprehended in London after a failed attempt to bomb an underground tube station during the Troubles. Faced with serving a lengthy custodial sentence in England away from her beloved son, she agrees to become an informant for an MI5 agent named Mac (Clive Owen) on the activities of her IRA brothers. However, as Colette becomes increasingly trapped between both sides of the fighting, she begins to realize that neither the MI5 nor her closest friends and family are willing to protect her should her cover be blown.
While the film is set during the Troubles, the conflict itself rarely features in the story of Shadow Dancer. It is, instead, simply used as a catalyst that forces the film’s characters to question where their loyalties lie. It is what causes Colette’s moral conflict as to whether she should stand alongside her family or betray her own flesh and blood. Similarly, it is what causes Mac to choose between his organization and saving Colette from probable death as we learn more about MI5’s dubious treatment of their informants.
As a result, James Marsh brilliantly avoids making his fictional debut one dominated by a political ideology. Neither side is treated as good or evil here and not once does he impose their beliefs or morals upon the audience. Shadow Dancer, instead, simply points its focus at two individuals within both opposing sides of the conflict and the way that their lives are being altered by the chaos surrounding them.
Shadow Dancer, therefore, is not your typical political thriller in which the plot is driven by espionage, action or mystery. Here, the main conflicts that occur are more internal than they are external. But that’s not to say the film is any less thrilling because of it. Colette’s emotional tug-of-war between choosing motherhood and standing for what she believes in is portrayed in such a taut, suspenseful fashion by both Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby – an ITV correspondent who spent some time in Ireland during this era – that it remains as gripping as any action sequences.
Shadow Dancer refuses to offer any easy solutions to Colette’s aforementioned moral dilemma either and it forces the viewers to reflect on what they would do in her shoes. As a result, it’s easy to sympathize with and the near-impossible choices she is forced to face as the time to make them slips away. This is especially the case thanks to Andrea Riseborough’s tremendously human performance that once again proves she is among Britain’s most underappreciated talents.
It’s neither the most original of stories nor the most unique of concepts, but Shadow Dancer is executed with such intelligence and skill by James Marsh, Tom Bradby and the film’s stellar cast that it becomes a suspenseful and gripping slice of British cinema.