Award-winning British filmmaker James Marsh has been alternating documentary and fiction for a while now, but it's for the documentary side that he's better known, thanks to works such as Oscar winner Man on Wire or Project Nim. That should have changed with this adaptation of Tom Bradby's novel set in 1993, at the tail end of the Northern Irish Troubles: a smart, thoughtful, adult thriller entirely shot in hushed tones and muffled colours, as wide-ranging in its questions as Mr. Marsh's documentary work. The word "Troubles" is never even mentioned in the film, being unnecessary to this story of a Belfast woman stuck in a claustrophobic cycle of violence she no longer wants to be a part of, and set in motion with a virtually dialogue-free superb post-credit sequence propelled by mood and handling alone.

     Those ten minutes, following a period prologue, introduce us to Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) as she prepares to set a bomb in the London transit system only to be captured by British intelligence. Counter-terrorism agent Mac (Clive Owen) offers her the chance to make a new start in exchange for informing in the still-active group led by her brother Gerry (Aiden Gillen), unwilling to participate in the peace process. While this is a reasonably conventional starting point, what follows is, in some way, rather startling, since it looks at the reverse side of terrorism (regardless from its origins): it posits terrorism and counter-terrorism as both sides of a single, bureaucratic coin, a fossilised structure that seems to move of its own accord, a hierarchical, institutionalised chain of command where both Collette and Mac (two strong, coiled performances from Ms. Riseborough and Mr. Owen) are mere cogs, trapped in apparently endless recursive loops where one death begets another.

     Despite a few action scenes, Mr. Marsh's steady, inquisitive camera avoids deliberately any standard action film tropes, focussing on the damages to the personal lives of those who live daily under the shadow of death. The initial period prologue that explains where Collette comes from will eventually pay off in the film's closing scenes, and the director's choice of hushed, banal, almost cozy settings suggest just how much normality is impossible in these circumstances, with Collette's red coat referring both to the blood that has been shed and to her desire to stand out and move away from her grim surroundings. It's that focus on the personal that makes Shadow Dancer such a fit with Mr. Marsh's documentary work and a welcome, thoughtful thriller.

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Bríd Brennan, David Wilmot, Gillian Anderson, Clive Owen
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Tom Bradby, from his novel Shadow Dancer
Cinematography: Rob Hardy  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Designer: Jon Henson
Costumes: Lorna Marie Mugan
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Producers: Chris Coen, Andrew Lowe, Ed Guiney (The British Film Institute, BBC Films, Unanimous Entertainment, Element Pictures and Wild Bunch in association with Lipsync Productions and the Irish Film Board)
United Kingdom/Ireland/France, 2012, 102 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, November 23rd 2013


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