Tuesday, 21 February 2012

'Shadow Dancer' Berlinale (Out of Competition) review:

Andrea Riseborough has long been a star in search of a fitting vehicle. Though she certainly has the screen presence, acting chops and good looks required to be considered a big deal, to date Riseborough has been unlucky in terms of her choices, with her most high-profile lead roles being in 2011's stomach-churningly awful adaptation of 'Brighton Rock' and playing the infamous Wallis Simpson in this year's 'W.E', directed by Madonna (and also shredded by critics). But she needn't live in fear of a fatal third strike, for she has finally snared a starring role in a film of very fine pedigree indeed, as a Northern Irish member of the IRA, forced by MI5 to spy on her staunchly republican family.

Whilst planting a bomb at a London underground station, single mother Colette McVeigh is detained by Mac, a British secret service officer played by Clive Owen. He presents her with an ultimatum she can't easily ignore: she can either spend the next 25 years in prison and lose her young son, or she can return to Belfast and gather intelligence on her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) - suspected as being responsible for a number of political murders and terrorist attacks. Already conflicted about her brothers' violence (she "forgets" to arm the underground bomb) and unwilling to be separated from her child, Colette reluctantly agrees to help Mac.

Of course, this decision places Colette in fresh danger, with her quick escape from the authorities in London and sudden unexplained visits to the local telephone box attracting attention from within the organisation. Soon a local IRA enforcer is hot on her trail, seemingly convinced that she is a mole and waiting for her to slip up. The result is a straight thriller about an informant caught in the middle between two forces to whom she is equally dispensable: Mac tries his best to reassure her of her safety, but his boss (Gillian Anderson) sees Colette as an expendable asset, whilst her the IRA won't hesitate to put a bullet in her head the minute they learn the truth. Soon it dawns on Mac that Colette is simply being used a bait to detract attention from another mole. Will he manage to pull her out of this situation before she's sold down the river? The final twenty minutes, full of unexpected twists and turns, is incredibly tense.

Directed by James Marsh, better known as the documentary filmmaker behind 'Man on Wire' and 'Project Nim', 'Shadow Dancer' is an extremely taut and gritty piece of work which is less about examining "the troubles" as it is the increasingly paranoid mental state of a character who's powerless escape her situation. Clive Owen is dependable as ever, whilst Gillen is a quietly menacing presence as the more hardline of the two brothers, but it's Riseborough who owns the film. She gives exactly the sort of subtle, layered performance required for this film to work, convincing both as a street-smart, lifelong IRA idealist and a mother scared out of her wits.

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