Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 13, 2013 7:55 am 
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Doubling in

Shadow Dancer asserts its grim determinism at the outset with a little sequence set in the early Senties that saddles its protagonist with heavy survival guilt. A girl's father asks her to go out and get some fags. She sends her younger brother in her place and he's brought back shot dead. It's Balfast during The Troubles. Twenty years later, it's 1993, the moment of the Downing Street declaration and the Good Friday agreement, when IRA hardliners are being challenged by the beginnings of peace. But Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) has grown up into a dedicated repubican footsoldier.

The pivot point comes in the first 1993 sequence, a long pastel grey slither through the London Tube system. Colette plants a bag on a stairway, dives into a network of passages, climbs up a long hatch onto the street, and is gathered up by men from MI5 and taken to an anonymous location where Mac (Clive Owen) compels her to agree to spy on her own family and close associates, or give up her young son in West Belfast and go to an English jail. What follows is a tug of war between Mac and Colette. Mac promises her she'll be safe, but we know that ain't so. To begin with, everybody's suspicious, and she has to meet with Mac in person and call him every week. Her ma, known as Ma (Brid Brennan), shares in caring for her boy, but questions her every move. It's not clear to Mac that she's cooperating -- she misses her first meeting -- and not clear to her that she can.

Colette has two brothers, Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Connor (Domnhall Gleeson), both active IRA terrorists. Connor is fiercely protective of his sister, Gerry more distant, wrapped up in his fury with his superiors for secretly negotiating with the Brits. (Both actors, and most of the others, are fine.) Colette is in hot water from when she comes back from London and is questioned by her chief Kevin (David Wilmot), who is suspicious. Meanwhile in a contrasting plot Mac has his own troubles, finding that something is going on, his painstaking developing of a mole not supported by his associates, particularly his cool, slightly mocking superior, Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson). He sees something's being hidden from him. Colette and Mac make an odd pair, both constipated footsoldiers doubled in on themselves, doing a good job of showing no emotion. Maybe we pick up on what's going to happen before the characters do, but in keeping with the chalky grayness of things, the ending is ambiguous.

The action is suffused with a calm that masks danger and fear. Everything is tense. But in all the "realism" sometimes it seems like Shadow Dancer loses touch with reality and sometimes just loses touch with the audience, or an American one anyway, because the whispered Northern-Irish-accented dialogue isn't always easy for the Yank ear to follow. This film resembles Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (which came out in 1993) but is far less dramatic. Here there is a lack of energy, sometimes stagnation, though the grim mood is well maintained.

There are some good scenes. The opening sequence, up through Mac's pitch to Colette and the cat-and-mouse game while she's held in a room and she finally agrees, is a fine buildup to something that subsequently seems thrown away. All but one of the subsequent contacts or meetings between Colette and Mac lack punch. There is a vivid moment of a young man getting shot in a car. A funeral where the republicans defiantly fire off a salute right in front of the English cops is strong. The Irish actors slip into their roles with ease.

The chalky looking digital images that seemed chosen for the flashback continue throughout the film. James Marsh, noted for his superb documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, and who also directed one of the films of the Red Riding trilogy, has assembled a fine cast here and shows a distinctive touch. But the funlessness of this film leads into longeurs, confusion, and final surprises that it's hard to care about. Still it's hard to say he hasn't gotten it right and what he most shows us is what a terrible grim time this was. If you don't mind an English girl playing the key role in a film about Belfast, this is another demonstration of the chameleonic skills of Andrea Riseborough. Her grim pasty visage sets the whole tone. Why does she wear a bright red raincoat? There are moments here that made me think of Antonioni. But the surging music spoils that. Tom Bradby, a British novelist and journalist who was a TV correspondent in Belfast from 1994 to 1996, adapted the screenplay from his own novel.

Shadow Dancer, 101 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2012, came to the UK and Ireland last summer after many festival showings. Staggered US release came in April and May of 2013.

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