Sundance: A Tense Return to Ireland's Religious Conflicts in 'Shadow Dancer'

Clive Owen's film with the Man on Wire director spins a new tale out of well-worn material.

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BBC Films

The Irish Republican Army has long been a favorite subject for filmmakers. Not only did it shape modern Irish history, but the organization's internal conflicts, regimented authority, and secretive nature make for compelling cinema. It practically has its own subgenre, populated by films from Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan and others. But as The Troubles recede further into history and consequently become a less timely subject, moviemakers have in large part moved on, with a few notable exceptions like Steve McQueen's Hunger.

Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire) revives the story and takes it in an interesting new direction with Shadow Dancer, the veteran documentarian's latest stab at narrative fiction filmmaking. Premiering this past week at the Sundance Film Festival, it trades in tight storytelling focus, subtlety, and restraint, rather than the sort of broad, sweeping historical overtures that characterize many of its counterparts.

The 1993-set film offers a case study in the turmoil's destructive effects on families, following radicalized Belfast mother Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) as she's caught by MI5 while planting a bomb in a London tube station, and faced with an impossible dilemma. Intelligence officer Mac (Clive Owen) lays it out: She must spy on her IRA brothers and friends for the Brits or face a lifetime prison sentence.

Marsh, working from a script by Tom Bradby (adapted from his book), incorporates a classical, patient approach to tell the story of two people swept up in a moral quandary. The tension builds slowly, through languid takes and steady framing, as strong emotions simmer below the surface. To drive home the tragic bent, the filmmaker relies on quiet moments, as characters observe one another and contemplate severe betrayals. At the same time, the stakes are raised as it becomes increasingly apparent that MI5 has little use for Mac or his mole.

Riseborough, who also stars in Madonna's W.E., has the sort of malleable face that fits Marsh's conceit. Colette's tender, mysterious eyes and subdued demeanor make her seem both vulnerable and dangerous. The actress nails that tricky balance between conveying a sad, kind quality and a powerful, ingrained rage. You never quite know exactly what she's thinking, even as the tough, outgoing Mac comes to trust and care for her.

The narrative is grounded by its focus on the realities of this tricky situation for Colette and Mac. There are allusions made to broader intelligence operations, and a local IRA official is convinced there's a mole in the organization, but Marsh isn't interested in investigatory minutiae or in comprehensively exploring the revenge methodology. The period comes alive in the pubs, the cars, the TV broadcasts and other details, but the movie transcends those details.

Instead, it achieves a timeless feel through its evocation of slowly mounting existential dread. The film zeroes in on the ways the two protagonists confront difficult decisions amid the erosion of their tightly put together worlds. It's a quiet work, a slow burn, so it doesn't have the stark visceral impact of a film about bombings and imprisonment, or tense political negotiating.

Marsh is content to spin a steady, affecting character drama out of the fraught milieu, a hushed story that unfolds in the silent spaces between what's said. His film takes a massive, destructive ethno-political conflict and renders it in relatable terms, as but the backdrop for a deceptively small-scale story of a woman and a man at war with themselves, on opposite sides of the law. As Northern Ireland grapples with the best ways to move on from the Troubles while still commemorating their vast impact, Shadow Dancer points the way.