Shadow Dancer sounds like it should be a feel-good movie from the 80s, in which the central character is redeemed through the power of dance. It’s not, though. It’s the opposite film to that. If you’re hoping for pirouettes and power ballads, you’re going to be very, very disappointed.
It’s a grim, realist portrayal of the dog days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where life is tough and hope is all but extinct.
Clive Owen plays Mac, a cop who snares Colette McVeigh, the sister of two high-ranking IRA members, during a failed terror attack on the London Underground. Mac uses Colette’s young son as leverage to persuade her to inform on her family, which works out about as well as you would think.
Kevin Mulville, an IRA enforcer played with an understated menace by David Wilmot, is drafted in to smoke out the suspected rat, which he does with a terrifying lack of emotion. Andrea Riseborough is excellent as Colette, a hard but broken woman, trying to save her child from the life that has consumed her family. Owen, meanwhile, never a man to use two words when an anguished expression will suffice, is pitch perfect as Mac, who attempts to hold the entire rickey structure together despite his colleagues’ best attempts to mess everything up. There are no car chases and few bullets fired, with director James Marsh gradually increasing the heat until every movement becomes almost painfully uncomfortable.
The cinematography is, somewhat ironically, very British; all “it’s grim up north” shots of impoverished council estates and lonely, grassy fields blowing in the wind – similar to Marsh’s take on Red Riding. The attention to detail is remarkable, from the crudely daubed IRA graffiti covering the estates to the smoke-laden, wood-paneled working men’s clubs.
Shadow Dancer treads the political tightrope deftly, with Colette and her brothers – both cold, cool killers – bringing an uncomfortably human, even likable, face to the IRA. It’s provocative, dramatic, harrowing and rather brilliant.
First published in City A.M.