Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Shadow Dancer

SHADOW DANCER              B+                  
Great Britain  Ireland  (100 mi)  ‘Scope  d:  James Marsh 

British director James Marsh loves suspense stories, where his taut directorial skills excel at creating an excruciatingly slow build up of tension leading to profoundly dramatic events, whether it be the breathtakingly elegant wire walker performance in MAN ON WIRE (2008) or the meticulously detailed police investigation in his episode of THE RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009).  Adapted by the author from his own 1998 novel by the same name, Tom Bradby spent three years (1993–96) as a Northern Ireland newspaper correspondent, covering the IRA ceasefire and the Northern Ireland peace process.  The opening twenty minutes of the film superbly demonstrate an economy of means, beautifully revealing the backdrop of the story with minimal dialogue, where in the early 70’s in Belfast a 12-year old sister sends her younger brother off to buy cigarettes on an errand her father requested she run for him, only to discover he’s killed as the innocent victim of crossfire shooting between soldiers and civilians.  Twenty years later, Colette, Andrea Riseborough from Brighton Rock (2010), is seen leaving a backpack carrying explosives on a stairway in a London subway station before making a daring escape.  Nonetheless, she’s arrested instantly and ushered into an interrogation room where Intelligence agent Clive Owen immediately gets her attention when he informs her that forensic evidence determined her brother was killed by an IRA bullet, before offering her a choice, get sent to prison for 20 years, separated from her young son, or return to her family as a police informer, reporting directly to him.  This introduction sequence sets the scene, a time when neither side trusted the other, there was however a thaw in relations and signs of hope from Prime Minister John Majors due to the departure of conservative hardliner Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990, the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century, and no friend to the Irish, certainly not the Irish Republican Army, as in 1981 she allowed ten Irish hunger strikers to die rather than admit they were being held for political crimes, where the IRA would just as soon blow up one of her ministers than talk to her. 

It’s clear by this time in the early 90’s, however, with a ceasefire and peace agreement on the table, that the British Intelligence Agency had sufficiently weakened the strength of the IRA by successfully infiltrating every level of their operations.  With the inevitable outcome drawing near, with Sinn Fein entering into the political arena, this kind of Intelligence threatening leverage has a way of looming over one’s life, where all her family ever knew was trouble, literally shaping the mindset of her two brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), both IRA trigger men, as well as her own violent past.  All living in the home of her widowed mother (Brid Brennan), did she want to add to her family’s grief?  When she eventually capitulates, they release her as if nothing happened, setting up regular meets with Owen.  After such a brilliant opening sequence, the rest never lives up to that level of intensity, quickly turning into a cat and mouse game of concealed information, betrayal, violent acts, behind the scenes power games, organizational deception, and confused allegiances.  Once the Intelligence Chief, a very Thatcher-like Gillian Anderson, thinks she has the means to take out several top level IRA leaders, Owen is mysteriously left out of the overall operations, insisting against the move because they will know the leak came from Colette, believing he was set up by his own operations.  Discovering they have a higher level informer in the IRA than Collette, Owen realizes that the sole purpose of recruiting her was never for information, but to have some “red meat” to throw the IRA investigators off track when they get too close to the real infiltrator, to keep them guessing. 

Curiously, the film evenhandedly paints a dark and murky picture on both sides, where the IRA's Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot) has the unsavory task of torturing his own people, ironically using the methods of the enemy, using waterboarding techniques when interrogating potential traitors.  A world where everyone is suspicious is a curiously strange and anxiety-ridden place, where one of the more chillingly conceived sequences is the military funeral service of an IRA member, where the British army stands nearly side by side with guns pointed straight at them the whole time.  In response, there is an IRA ritual commemorating a fallen soldier by hiding the guns and masking the potential shooters, and then having several members fire live bullets into the air as a sign of defiance and open rebellion against the British.  This is a beautifully staged stand-off that is exasperatingly offensive and couldn’t be more dramatically powerful, leading to still more plot twists down the road with devastating effects.  The moody score is by Dickon Hinchliffe of the Tindersticks, also writing the music for Debra Granik’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Winter's Bone (2010).  Andrea Riseborough in particular is especially effective in an understated performance, remaining at the center of the moral quandary throughout, continually relaying her doubts and fears, always caught in the middle, certain she is suspect, uncertain of how to claw her way out of the desperate circumstances that she continually finds herself in, reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman’s role in Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946), where FBI agent Cary Grant blackmails Bergman into infiltrating a WWII Nazi spy ring.  Due to financial restraints, the film was actually shot in Dublin instead of Belfast, losing some of the historic authenticity, where this version is also surprisingly politically neutral, showing both sides to be equally merciless in their quest to root out terrorists and traitors.  Nonetheless, through restrained direction, reminiscent of the paranoid thrillers of American films of the 70’s, like Alan J. Pakula’s KLUTE (1971) and PARALLAX VIEW (1974), or Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974), to name a few, the apt tension is there throughout in this gripping political thriller. 

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