Historical films can be tricky — too much background and it feels like a history lesson, not enough and the context of the film can be muddled. Shadow Dancer falls somewhere in the middle with an in-depth look at one family’s involvement in the Irish Republican Army. Opening with 12-year old Colette McVeigh (Maria Laird) passing off her father’s request to buy cigarettes to her younger brother, the subtle, quiet, yet intense mood of the film is set. Colette continues to string bead after bead onto her necklace until chaos erupts as her brother is brought into the house after being shot by a rogue bullet during an IRA skirmish with British forces. Devastation soon radiates throughout the household, and Colette is literally shut out from grieving with the rest of her family with a casting glare from her father.
Fast forward 20 years, and Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is now a single mother living in London in the midst of another tense situation. Shifty eyes and fidgeting thumbs give hints that she’s up to no good as she boards the London Underground, only to be spooked at the last minute and drop her purse, bomb included, on the stairs. Within seconds of escaping from the tunnels, she is swiftly picked up by Mi5. Interrogation begins with Clive Owen’s character, Mac, who offers her a deal: spy on her family and their IRA involvement in return for immunity for her and her son.
After taking the deal, Colette returns to Ireland with her son, and begins re-immersing herself with the IRA on the home front. Her two brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), deeply entrenched and trusted within the Belfast IRA, provide integral information for Colette to dole out to the British forces. If only all spies had it that easy.
Of course, the British have their own agenda as Mac’s boss, Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) makes clear. And this agenda is the one that matters, even if there are casualties along the way in order to achieve the end result. Masculine Mac jumps into the protective male role and challenges Kate’s motives and decisions — all to keep his promise to Colette that she will not die from her betrayal.
But there also seems to be some disconnect in Mac’s story, perhaps a lack of character development. Numerous mentions are made to him being “out of favors” but no explanation has given. Has he used all of his favors to save his other spies? Or was there a botched mission previously? Why isn’t he included in the meetings that determine the fate of his insider?
This lack of character development also mirrors the missing historical context in the film. There is no explanation of the tensions between Northern Ireland and the U.K., nor is there mention of the oppression and persecution that the Irish felt under British rule. Perhaps this was the direction director James Marsh wanted to take. Sure, one can see how people get wrapped up in the IRA with the loss of innocent life, like at the beginning of the film. But not every member of the IRA had such a situation to map out their allegiances. While taking on the whole history of the Troubles would be far too large a task for a 101-minute film, perhaps Shadow Dancer is slightly too microscopic. With a touch more context of what life in Northern Ireland in the '70s and '90s was like, the McVeigh family's struggle could have made a larger impact.
The cinematography helps to paint the dire circumstances of the McVeighs, as well as the situation between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Drab, dreary grays make up the majority of the colors used in the film with the exception of Colette’s bright red raincoat — is it the red of a scarlet letter of a mole, or a red symbolizing the sacrificial nature of a mother’s love?
The acting is also superb. Every performance is delicate and strong at the same time. Riseborough’s face maintains its composure in even the most stressful situations, while the smallest and most determined motions — like subtle shaky hands or darting eyes — provide a humanity and realness to her performance. Owen is Owen playing his typical strong, male lead, but he does it well. And Gleeson (whom you may recognize from the Harry Potter series) as the sensitive, protective, and endearing brother puts in an earnest and sincere performance.
If you want a fast-paced thriller, rent Die Hard. For a suspenseful and intricate look into one family’s choices during a contentious political time, Shadow Dancer will do. Shadow Dancer is playing at Park Circle Film Society on Sat. June 22, at 8 p.m.