Shadow Dancer James Marsh

Sometimes you can learn just as much about a conflict by studying those involved as by dwelling on the positions they promote. This is the viewpoint advanced by director James Marsh in Shadow Dancer, a smoldering thriller adapted from a novel by Tom Bradby that centers on an IRA faction and the government effort to neutralize it during the waning days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

After a botched bombing of the Tube in London, pensive Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is whisked away by MI5 and deposited in a holding room. There, an agent (Clive Owen), who later reveals his name as Mac, tries to recruit her as an informant by threatening her with a long prison term. Fearing separation from her son, Collette agrees to snitch on the IRA despite her family’s deep ties to the organization.

From there, Shadow Dancer follows Collette back home to Belfast, exposing the strains that limit her every move. Day to day her home is a pressure-cooker, thanks to the goading of her hotheaded militant brothers, hovering solicitous Ma (a restrained Brid Brennan), and demanding handler Mac, along with the radical Republicans surrounding her. Foremost among the latter is enforcer Kevin (David Wilmot), who leads a dogged effort to sniff out the rat in the IRA ranks and is swiftly closing in on Collette. Despite seeming the pliable lass, Collette is a savvy, willful woman with unplumbed depths of resolve. Riseborough enthralls as she squeezes considerable emotional range out of minimal gesture, giving texture to this troubled, ambivalent terrorist who must navigate extraordinary obstacles.

Shadow Dancer James Marsh

The IRA may be plagued by treachery and infighting, but Military Intelligence is similarly rife with duplicity and dubious ethics. He’s a caring idealist, and Owen imbues him with earnest passion, but his superior back at MI5 is more the norm for the security service. Sharp, patronizing Kate (Gillian Anderson, full of verve) is a realist with no qualms about double-dealing and deceiving—they are, after all, the tools of the trade—and she is remorseless in advancing her mission, whatever (or whoever) the cost.

Marsh, whose roots are in documentary film, celebrates the persistence of strong-willed individuals at odds with inflexible norms. His account of the impish tightrope-walker Philippe Petit’s quest to cross the twin towers in Man on a Wire (08), and his depiction of the tragically noble copper Peter Hunter’s effort to clean house in Red Riding: 1980 (09) both focus on such single-minded characters. In Shadow Dancer, Marsh captures subtle, humanizing gestures, as when an IRA activist nervously fingers his watch before a hit. He tends toward longer shots that linger on his subjects for that extra beat, often unearthing some telling detail or human flaw in the process. This approach enlivens the scenes with Collette, but in the underdeveloped part of the story that centers on Mac, Marsh is on weaker footing, falling back sometimes on clichéd, by-the-book shots: soldiers sternly guarding an entrance, or the screen on a clunky desktop computer as Mac searches a database for clues.

When not bearing down on the faces of the characters, the camera captures the dreary greys and earth tones of Belfast, with Collette set apart by the bright red trench she wears for much of the film. She also stands out within her IRA faction, whose leadership is male; she lays her life on the line, yet without having a position of authority. Marsh regularly accents his restrained, tightly constructed films with such nuanced looks at hierarchy and gender politics, as in the relations between professor and students in his devastating chimp biopic Project Nim (11).

Shadow Dancer returns to the sacrifices a mother makes to protect her own, the loyalty to a child that can trump any higher ideal or political cause. The forces that tear society apart are strong, and this humanizing influence exerts a potent corrective. By the end, the film shows not only the power of this influence but also its terrible price in an often merciless conflict.