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Shadow Dancer
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by Jay Seaver

"Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy"
4 stars

There's a twenty-year jump early in "Shadow Dancer", from 1973 to 1993, and another twenty years between then and the present day, and there's something appealing about that sort of symmetry, especially with the reminders in the background that this was sort of a turning point in the area's history. What's left of the Provisional Irish Republican Army is pretty quiet these days (at least, not in America), and it makes me wonder if the events of this nifty little spy story feel closer to the past or the present.

What happened in 1973 certainly had an impact on Collette McVeigh; when we see her in 1993 (Andrea Riseborough), she's taking a trip to London, eventually dropping a satchel in the middle of the Underground. The cops are on to her, though, and she's offered a deal: Spy on the IRA cell that includes her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhall Gleeson), and she an go back to living quietly with her mother (Brid Brennan) and son (Cathal Maguire). She reluctantly agrees, but she's attracted the attention of IRA ratcatcher Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot); meanwhile, her handler Mac (Clive Owen) discovers that his supervisor (Gillian Anderson) has not briefed him on the entire operation.

Shadow Dancer is a fairly short movie, but it's just big enough to have multiple angles, shifting its focus from chess match to questions of personal loyalty for both Collette and Mac and back again so that even though the two are intertwined, the audience can focus on one or the other in a given moment. It's a delicate balancing act, especially once the director James Marsh and writer Tom Bradby (who penned both the screenplay and the novel it was based upon) pull away from the walls tightening on Collette and move on to dropping some revelations and reversals on the audience. It's the sort of twisting that can leave some in the audience confused as the movie ends, but is still quite satisfying, especially as the actions of relatively minor characters seem more important in hindsight.

It would give away too much of the game to say which of the supporting performances deserves attention, but there's no harm in saying Andrea Riseborough is quite good. She's not really asked to do a lot of different things, but she nails the stress of being under suspicion by both sides, presenting a face that is alternately scared and indignant. She's a mess of confused duty except when it comes to her son. Clive Owen makes a nice complement to her, the imposing MI-5 man who, underneath, just may not be quite harsh enough for his job.

That's not a problem for Gillian Anderson's Kate Fletcher; she is just fantastically authoritative as Mac's boss, and a great reminder that women in this conflict didn't just weep morosely. David Wilmot is just as wonderfully predatory as her opposite number within the IRA, giving the impression of a man who thoroughly hates traitors but loves catching them. Brid Brennan, Cathal Maguire, Domhall Gleeson, and Aida Gille do a nice job of filling out Collette's family.

Director James Marsh is best known for his documentary work (most notably, Man on Wire), and while that style doesn't take on that style at all - in fact, it cuts to the credits at the point where most documentary and narrative filmmakers would have taken a moment to explain what just happened - he does remember that it's details that can make a movie sink or swim. So things like a funeral for a fallen IRA soldier - and the Brits' determination that it not be treated as such - is particularly well-observed. Sometimes the details just provide texture, but they also keep later developments from coming out of left field. There's no point in wasting minutes in a thriller, and Marsh makes sure every moment, even delays meant to frustrate or break somebody, feels essential.

He doesn't make the biggest IRA story ever, but that's okay - this is a right-sized movie for the story he, Bradby, and company are looking to tell. It's got enough suspenseful moments to keep the audience guessing without overshadowing the impressive performances at the center of the film.

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originally posted: 06/19/13 13:53:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 48th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 48th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 35th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 35th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

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  31-May-2013 (R)
  DVD: 20-Aug-2013

  24-Aug-2012 (15)

  DVD: 20-Aug-2013

Directed by
  James Marsh

Written by
  Tom Bradby

  Andrea Riseborough
  Clive Owen
  Aidan Gillen
  Domhnall Gleeson
  Gillian Anderson

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