Shadow Dancer

An IRA Film Without Daniel Day?


Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen

Review written by Robert D. Patrick

On more than one blood specked occasion, the Irish Republican Army’s teeth-gnashing, metacarpal bruising fury has crossed horns with the unabashed grit of England’s MI5. The pulp of Ireland’s history has been branded with struggle, and here, in a microcosm of the land’s imbroglios, Shadow Dancer focuses on one woman and her family.

When Americans think of the Irish, they generally think of Daniel Day-Lewis, adorned with slick locks of hair, battling for his freedom with the doting Pete Postlethwaite in tow. Or maybe the smarmy conditions that Leonardo DiCaprio slogged through in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. How about In Bruges, where Colin Farrell’s crass brogue clipped the wings of the people around him? Ireland’s exports have mostly been films about the costly sacrifice of nationalism or chipped tooth crime-comedies (crafted, almost exclusively, by Jim Sheridan or Neil Jordan). Shadow Dancer, the newest opus about Ireland’s identity and the cost of family, comes, this time, from an English director named James Marsh, known for his documentary Man on Wire.

Clive Owen returns, once again, in a role where he is required to wear a suit (he is creeping up on Cary Grant territory as far as consecutive films where posh wardrobe is paramount). This time the baritone voiced Brit takes on a more subdued, languid part as an MI5 agent whose primary goal is to blackmail an IRA member into parting ways with delicate information. Collette (Andrea Riseborough), the name of this particular Irish Republican Army supporter, is vulnerable because her child’s future is at stake. Driven into the ground by the seemingly omnipotent boot of the English secret service, Collette is forced to make a decision between her beliefs and her son.

The ultimatum, as one would expect, is a barbed and void of lucidity. Shadow Dancer may seem like the trappings of a Lifetime film (I have to protect my son against all odds), but the script is more deftly written than the synopsis may appear. The hazy, milky skies of Belfast create a palpable dread as opposing parties are roused, fangs bared. There is a guttural defiance, deep inside of Collette, that is emblazoned by a stark, fiery red coat that she dons throughout the film. Andrea Riseborough’s slight of hand is so impressive that there is not one moment where, even in the script’s weaker points, you don’t believe the conviction of her character. Small, abject facial tics paint murals. Soft, sputtering sentences weave magic. Riseborough’s triumphant – yes, that word – portrayal of Collette should have her dusting off a mantel in preparation of award season.

James Marsh has directed the best film about Ireland since Steve McQueen’s Hunger. See it for Riseborough. Did I say see it for Riseborough? See it for Riseborough.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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