Inner Troubles

Shadow Dancer
(UK/Ireland, 101 min.)
Dir. James Marsh, Writ. Tom Bradby
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Brid Brennan, Aidan Gillen, Domnhall Gleeson.

Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer,
a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Andrea Riseborough deserves to be a star. The English actress is making some headway on this side of the pond after appearing in this summer’s Tom Cruise pic Oblivion. Likewise, her performance as Wallis Simpson in last year’s W.E. might have gone places had the film itself not been such a train wreck; however, Riseborough’s engrossing performance in W.E. is all the more impressive if one considers that it was created under the direction of Madonna. Silly quips aside, Riseborough has serious acting chops. They’re on full display in James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer. Riseborough gives a knockout performance that’s worth seeking out.

Shadow Dancer is another of many recent examples of how the words “direct to video” shouldn’t bear the same stigma they did a few years ago. There’s plenty of good stuff floating about on Net and just a click away on iTunes. The good news is that it’s easier than ever to find a hidden gem like Shadow Dancer than it was before. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the film is good enough to merit a theatrical release, and the added exposure of a big screen opening might have afforded Riseborough the good press she deserved. Case in point: the film opened in UK cinemas and brought the actress a handful of well-earned critics’ prizes. But film buffs can vote on their own and make Riseborough a name in their own household!

Riseborough stars as Collette, a young woman living in Belfast in 1993. A single mother and an active member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Collette wears different guises and bears various loyalties as she participates in radical acts that could create a better future for her son. Collette carries a conscientiousness different from that of her hardliner IRA brothers, played by Aidan Gillen and Anna Karenina’s Domnhall Gleeson. Having lost her younger brother to violence as a girl—Collette was supposed to run to the store, but she sent him on the ill-fated errand instead—Collette is fully aware that the actions she takes can make victims out of apolitical innocents who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Collette’s conflict is worn well on Riseborough’s expressive malleable face as she rides the London tube, carrying a large bag and observing the faces of her fellow passengers, en route to her text mission. She gets off at the next station, waits on the platform—it almost looks as if she’s going to jump—and then drops her bag and saunters to the exit.

She’s picked up by MI5 as she leaves the station. Mac (Clive Owen, equally good), the agent handling her investigation, appeals to the mother in Collette and offers her a deal if she becomes an informant. The bomb she dropped in the tube station wasn’t even set, Mac observes, so the aborted mission suggests that this patient suspect will eventually give in.

She does. Collette agrees to work with MI5 and she returns to the troubles of Belfast to snitch on the IRA. The problem, it seems, is that someone else is spying on her, too.

The thrill of Shadow Dancer is watching Riseborough navigate the psychological turmoil in which Collette finds herself. She can’t trust anyone, even her own family, and any wrong move could leave her in a ditch. Collette can’t turn to her mother (played by a strong Brid Brennan), either, since Ma isn’t afraid to judge her daughter’s radicalism and she insists Collette should stay home with her son instead of joining the rest of the family on hits. Collette’s only alley is her enemy, Mac the Londoner. Collette’s life rests in Mac’s ability to protect her. Mac, on the other hand, learns that his boss, Kate (a sturdy Gillian Anderson), is ready to let Collette bite the bullet so that she can follow other leads.

Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby, adapting his own novel, keep the espionage character-driven and intimate. Shadow Dancer is an old-school spy thriller embroiled in atmosphere and characters of ambiguous allegiance. Shot with a gritty lensing by DP Rob Hardy, Shadow Dancer has an especially cold, hardened feel to match the atmosphere. There’s a sense that everyone is both a player and someone getting played as the film cuts back and forth between Collette’s double-dealing in Ireland and Mac’s investigation in England.

One doesn’t necessarily need to know all the gritty details of the cause Collette is fighting for, since her inner troubles, the war in her mind, is far more palpable and riveting. Shadow Dancer keeps the drama firmly wrapped in the backdrop of The Troubles, though, so the political elements are still tangible and they serve as a backdrop to the more universal elements of Collette’s conflicted devotion to her role as a daughter, sister, countryman, and mother. Riseborough creates a character that is resolute, yet caught in the crosshairs of these different loyalties. It’s a performance that deserves to be seen on the big screen, but the close-ups on Riseborough's powerfully expressive face ensure that Shadow Dancer is a powerful film even on a screen as big as an iPod.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Shadow Dancer is currently available on iTunes.