Having toggled between documentaries and narrative features for much of his career, British director James Marsh returns with Shadow Dancer, a fictional story (adapted from a book by Tom Bradby) set against a very real piece of history: the tumultuous "Troubles" that defined life in Northern Ireland from the '60s to the early '90s when the film is set.
Andrea Riseborough (recently seen as Tom Cruise's live-in post-apocalyptic companion in Oblivion) stars as Colette, a Belfast resident inspired to take up the cause of Irish independence as a child following the tragic death of a family member. By 1993, she's in the employ of the IRA, but ends up in the clutches of MI5 after a scouting mission for a potential London operation goes badly. Hangdog agent Mac (Clive Owen) is assigned to her case and uses her young son as leverage to enlist her as an undercover agent, but runs up against his charge's obstinacy and the machinations of his own higher-ups, including Gillian Anderson's poker-faced supervisor Kate Fletcher. Eventually forced into the reluctant role of spy, Colette plots a way out that will inevitably result in another tragedy that hits close to home.
A low-key character piece, Shadow Dancer lacks some of the dramatic fireworks of Troubles-related movies like In the Name of the Father, Bloody Sunday and Ken Loach's magnificent period piece The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which provides some historical background on the rise of the IRA. Part of that is due to Owen's too-subdued performance; once one of England's most charismatic stars whose performances always carried a hint of danger, the actor has mellowed to the point where he primarily comes across as sleep-deprived. Riseborough delivers a more well-rounded star turn, capturing Colette's increasingly desperate circumstances without turning her into a martyr. And much like his '80s-set installment of the terrific Red Riding Trilogy (available on Netflix Instant, people -- go watch it!), Marsh recreates the era very well, showing the kind of attention to historical detail that hints at his documentary background. While I could have done without a shoehorned-in romance that develops between Colette and Mac, the movie is sure-footed in its storytelling, right up to its appropriately open-ended conclusion that suggests both Colette's troubles and her country's Troubles are far from over.
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