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"Is this just because she has a pretty face?"
Facts of the Case
The year is 1993, and the place is London. Collette (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) is a member of the IRA who has just been arrested for her involvement in a failed attempt to bomb a train station. An MI5 Agent named Mac (Clive Owen, Duplicity) believes that Collette intentionally sabotaged the bombing because she didn't have the nerve to go through with it. Rather then sending her off to prison, he requests that she put in some time as an undercover informant. Collette reluctantly agrees, but quickly finds herself tangled up in the middle of a widespread conflict with potentially deadly consequences for everyone involved.
There have been more than a few films about the IRA made over the past couple of decades (from the sweeping Jim Sheridan dramas to more intimate, specific visions of films like Hunger and Five Minutes of Heaven). In many ways, James Marsh's Shadow Dancer fits comfortably among most of these—it's a murky, downbeat, complicated film that can only begin to hint at the depth and complexity of the problems Northern Ireland faced before the Good Friday Agreement was reached. While it's too anonymous to really stand above most of the better films in this category, it's worth watching thanks to its willingness to embrace the complexity of the situation. Here is a world in which there are no winners, no heroes and no easy answers to any of life's most pressing problems. There is precious little hope of a happy ending for anyone; there's only hope for survival.
For a film containing numerous bloody murders, Shadow Dancer is an exceptionally quiet effort. Indeed, the film is generally at its strongest when it's showing rather than telling (several extended sequences featuring little or no dialogue are among the high points). The film's opening scene presents a defining moment from Collette's childhood: a horrific sequence that hangs over the rest of the movie like a dark cloud. Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby (adapting his own novel) never have the character explain the undoubtedly profound psychological effect this moment had on her, but they never have to. The filmmakers trust the audience to understand the implications of much of what happens—it's reminiscent of John le Carre in its methodical pace, busy plotting and subdued maturity.
Clive Owen's career has been awfully hit-and-miss in recent years, but he remains a tremendously gifted actor. His performance here is a work of heartbreaking understatement, as he gradually begins to realize just how far in over his head he really is. Mac initially sees Collette as a nervous potential ally who simply has to find the courage she needs to continue, but she proves cannier and less dependable than he expected. Riseborough matches Owen's performances with an enigmatic turn that always keeps us guessing about where her character's loyalties lie and how far she's willing to go to preserve those loyalties. The only thing that seems certain is that she'll do anything to protect her young son, so naturally the child quickly becomes a pawn both sides are eager to use against Collette. Those two performances form the core of the movie, but you'll also find stellar supporting turns from Gillian Anderson (The Fall) as an MI5 boss with her own Agenda, Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) as a reticent IRA member and David Wilmot (The Guard) as the film's most unmistakably dangerous character.
I admire Shadow Dancer, but it's worth noting Marsh's traditional features haven't quite managed to reach the level of his documentary work. Man on Wire and Project Nim are two of the most well-regarded docs of the past decade, while Marsh's other movies (this film, The King and Red Riding: 1980) are good, ambitious works that can't quite seem to find their way to greatness. Nonetheless, he knows what he's doing behind the camera, and on all three of those films he's delivered a knockout punch of an ending that enhances everything else.
Shadow Dancer (Blu-ray) has received a very strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that highlights the film's simple, classical look. This is a movie with a fondness for long, meditative takes that give the viewer ample time to observe the visual details of each scene, and the level of detail on display is nothing short of superb. You can see every bit of stubble on Owen's face and every blade of tall grass blowing in the background. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is very quiet, but effective. The moody score by Dickon Hinchliffe is very much in line with the work the composer did for the Red Riding series: a grim, subtle effort that effectively captures the bleakness on display. Supplements include two short featurettes ("AXS TV: A Look at Shadow Dancer" and "Behind the Scenes of Shadow Dancer"), 27 minutes of unedited interviews with assorted cast and crew members (clips from these were used in the aforementioned featurettes) and BD-Live.
Shadow Dancer is a dark, thoughtful drama about a difficult subject. It doesn't have anything new to say, but the strong craftsmanship and subtle performances go a long way towards compensating for that.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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