Set in 1990s Belfast, Shadow Dancer sees Riseborough as Colette McVeigh, a young woman who has lived the Republican cause all of her life and who is both a mother and an active member of the IRA. After an aborted operation on London’s Underground, McVeigh is apprehended and given an ultimatum: become an informant for MI5 and tell on a known IRA leader heavily tied to her family, in order to protect her son’s welfare, or spend the rest of her life behind bars. She chooses to betray her past to be with her son while being watched by her MI5 handler, David Ryan (Owen), who has never doubted where his loyalties lie – until now and this job.
After a nail-biting opener on the Tube that slowly escalates with momentum, the film’s deliberately arduous and ‘realistic’ pace squeezes out every fraught and painful decision each of its leads must make. Marsh creates an equally desolate cinematic palette, one of moody colouring to heighten the gravity and the threat of the situation, in turn directing focus on the mental anguish of his characters and their guarded expressions, rather than portraying the standard scenes of civil unrest in such a genre film. The result is a unique, intense and moving personal account of inter-generational prejudice exuded from within one family that holds a central knockout performance from Riseborough.
As McVeigh, the W.E. actress is both achingly fragile to watch as a small pawn in the wider political game and an incredible tower of strength within her own domestic environment as her haunted presence engrosses you, giving away little of her thought-process – another of the thriller’s cleverly subtle tools. This prudent nature emphasises the many untold secrets and strength of familiar bonds that are being tested to the fullest, resulting in Owen as Ryan as the most outwardly ‘volatile’ of the characters in most cases, as he tries to gain personal control. Both actors are faultless in their deliveries, as they play a cat-and-mouse game with time fast running out.
Another intriguing aspect to this story is watching how loyalty morphs, without any theatrics, in order to survive: McVeigh’s a mental and physical necessity while Ryan’s is purely mental as he attempts to make sense of the shreds of his professional integrity when Top Brass – coolily played by X Files star Gillian Anderson – is blasé and detached about McVeigh’s sacrifices. There is a fascinating, unspoken prop of support that each unconsciously holds out to the other; the burning question is how long can this tentative ‘bond’ remain intact, which is the film’s true intensity – not necessarily the imminent and obvious danger of being in the IRA’s clutches. This story relays the latter as a ‘natural’ existence, so it’s curious to see how someone’s ‘norm’ is invaded and turned upside down, and how they come out the other side – in both McVeigh’s and Ryan’s cases.
Marsh’s Shadow Dancer is a complex and beautifully realised Irish Troubles thriller of cerebral and psychological proportions. It solely relies on the deep mystery of family bonds to build the intensity and direct the shots, rather than resorting to grim scenes of conflict and torture as in the past – though it does portray the odd scene. If nothing else, fans of Riseborough and Owen can expect the highest calibre of acting from their idols in this while being thrilled by the discerning power play that dominates the plot.