Shadow Dancer has a wonderful opening
Shadow Dancer has a
wonderful opening: it’s 1993 and Andrea Riseborough’s IRA terrorist
Collette, her pale, pinched, plain face impassive, plays cat-and-mouse on the
Tube with some faceless British security agents as she tries to plant a bomb on
the London Underground.
The scene is almost unbearably tense, director James Marsh’s (Man
On Wire, Project Nim) prowling camera trailing Riseborough as she hops on
and off trains, runs along corridors and gingerly picks her way through service
tunnels in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the relentless pursuers who may
just be figments of her paranoia, the anxiety and suspense heightened by the
complete absence of dialogue or even incidental music.
It’s a bravura piece of film-making, perhaps the film’s best scene,
economically setting up Shadow Dancer’s ambiguous protagonist and the
knife edge of danger and duplicity she must walk where each misstep or wrong
move could mean betrayal or death.
It’s a fantastic, daring way to open the movie. It’s unfortunate then that it occurs
about ten minutes into the film after a laughably cliched opening which sees
the ten-year-old Collette in 1973 inadvertently cause her young brother’s fatal
shooting by the British Army, an action which radicalises Collette and her
surviving brothers (who go on to form their own little family terrorist cell)
and forever souring her relationship with her father who blames Collette for
his wee boy’s murder by those dastardly Brits! See folks, she might be a terrorist but she’s not a bad
lass! She just wants her Da’ to
love her again! As openers go,
it’s about as subtle and ambiguous as, well, explaining away your protagonist’s
entire psychology, motivation and every action by shooting her wee brother
in the first five minutes!
Scripted by ITN political correspondent Tom Bradby from his own
novel, Shadow Dancer is ponderous and thumpingly obvious. When IRA bomber Collette is thwarted in
her attempt to blow up the Tube she finds herself in a non-descript hotel being
debriefed (steady now) by hard-bitten, world-weary MI5 spook Mac (the brilliant
Clive Owen reminding us again he should’ve been Bond) who offers
her a stark choice; spend the rest of her life in the Big House and lose her
son or turn informer. Having gone
to great pains to make her a sympathetic terrorist bomber (dead wee brother,
bomb wasn’t armed, felt so sad about murdering her Protestant boss for the IRA
she went to his funeral), Bradby and Marsh have her return to Belfast as a
reluctant turncoat, keeping tabs on the activities of her murderous brothers
(Stuart from Queer As Folk and Ron Weasley’s brother). But IRA interrogator/security man Kevin
(the excellent David Wilmot)
suspects she may be the grass who’s blowing operations and the conflicted Mac
uncovers a wider conspiracy that suggests Collette has been set up as a
sacrifice to distract from the search for a more highly placed mole, putting
her right in the firing line.
Based on the evidence of Shadow
Dancer, Bradby is a far better reporter than he is novelist or screenwriter
while Marsh, director of the frankly over-rated Man On Wire, is arguably a better documentarian. The performances are pretty decent,
Riseborough and Brid Brennan jointly
winning an award at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival for their
performances as Collette and her mother, with both Owen and Wilmot quietly
excellent while Gillian Anderson is
on scene stealing form as Mac’s duplicitous ice queen boss but the film is
glacially paced with far too many opaque, elliptical conversations between
sour-faces in place of action.
That may have worked for Tinker
Tailor Soldier Spy guys but Tom, you ain’t no Le Carre.
The script strives for relevancy, to comment on the Troubles in the same
way as Le Carre’s work comments on the Cold War but each plot twist is
telegraphed, the revelation of the identity of the true grass is obvious
(there’s only three suspects and two of them are quite horribly interrogated)
and you’ll see the final plot twist coming a mile off (a cautious character
constantly checks under their car for bombs, the one time they don’t check – boom!
– they’re blown to Stranraer). The
film fails as a thriller; it simply doesn’t thrill. Fatally however, the protagonist just isn’t
sympathetic. Collette isn’t
particularly likable; she’s a terrorist and a killer who abandons her
principles and ultimately betrays everyone around her (family, friends,
handler, comrades) without the slightest regret in order to save her own skin. Conversely, the diametrically opposed
Mac and Kevin are far more sympathetic because they are true to
When he recruits Collette, Mac promises to protect her and goes to
extreme lengths to do so. The icy,
reptilian Kevin meanwhile suspects, rightly, that she is a traitor and is
prepared to torture and murder to save the organisation he is loyal to. Apart from the early Underground chase,
the film’s other main stand-out scene occurs around the halfway point when
Collette is taken to a derelict house to be interrogated by Kevin. The scene is intense the almost genial
Kevin questioning the guarded Collette.
He knows she’s a traitor, we know she’s a traitor; he just can’t prove
it. Later, as she leaves, Collette
passes a room where Kevin’s assistant has put plastic sheeting down and waits
with a gun for the go-ahead from Kevin to murder her. When you prefer the IRA torturer threatening the heroine to
the heroine herself, when you’re disappointed that she doesn’t take a double
tap to the noggin and wind up dumped on wasteground wrapped in a shower
curtain, alarm bells should start ringing.
Slow, grim and deliberate, one of the best things about Shadow Dancer is
it was funded by the Beeb. Which
makes it easier to decide to save your money and wait for it to screen in its
natural home on BBC2, probably later this year.