Can acclaimed documentary film-maker James Marsh reinvigorate the Troubles movie genre?
Shadow Dancer is the latest in a long list of 'Troubles movies' that have been in and out of cinemas over the past few years. Yet there is more of a pedigree with this one than most.
It stars 'the man who was nearly James Bond' (and might have done a better job than Daniel Craig, if you ask me), Clive Owen, and is directed by James Marsh, the Oscar-winning visionary behind the documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim.
Here, Owen is, naturally, convincing as a world-weary MI5 man, and Marsh has proven he’s as adept at drama as he is at documentaries, directing the '1980' episode of Channel 4's Red Riding series. That’s not to say Shadow Dancer is flaw-free.
In itself, it’s a great film – superbly shot, brilliantly acted, satisfying and surprising in all the right places. The problem is that it has become increasingly difficult to care much for the 'embittered victims' and 'conflicted agents' in these stories.
Owen plays MI5 officer Mac, while Andrea Riseborough is Colette McVeigh, a standard-issue, stony-faced IRA volunteer. Set in 1990s Belfast, with a prologue in the 1970s, the story concerns Riseborough’s decision to inform on the rest of her terrorist gang in order to protect her son’s welfare, and the problems this brings down at home.
For 30-year-old Riseborough, it’s some jump from playing the early 20th century American socialite Wallis Simpson in last year’s Madonna-directed WE, but then that’s why they call them actors. The English actor does well with the character – and the Northern Ireland accent – managing to keep McVeigh sufficiently on the right side of hateful for the material to work.
Elsewhere, there is solid support from the likes of Gillian Anderson, as Owen’s icy superior, who appears to have an agenda of her own, and Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson, as Colette’s equally radicalised brothers, Gerry and Connor.
Marsh’s direction, from a screenplay by former ITN Ireland correspondent Tom Bradby, based upon his 1998 novel of the same title, is assured yet subtle. The script, admirably lacking in exposition, allows the viewer to join the dots in their own time.
In one interesting move, Bradby has replaced certain real-life characters who featured in the book with fictionalised versions of themselves. It’s superficial, and it’s easy to work out who’s who, but it is probably less distracting this way.
Taken as a thriller, with the time and place changed, Shadow Dancer would have made a nicely gritty, memorable piece of work. It’s just that we’ve been down this bullet-strewn, bomb-blasted road a few too many times now.
There have been signs of late that Northern Ireland is starting to mean something other to moviemakers, with the underrated Cherrybomb and the forthcoming Good Vibrations largely steering clear of the conflict.
Shadow Dancer may struggle to find an audience beyond Troubles anoraks, and even then, since 2008’s superlative Hunger raised the bar, it may find itself overshadowed.