British-born director James Marsh is a humanist with a strong political bent. A fan of the work of British director Alan Clarke, he moves effortlessly between fiction and documentary filmmaking. With his Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man On Wire, about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Centre's twin towers, and last year's Sundance Grand prize-winner Project Nim, about a chimp raised to be human, he has created heartfelt dramatic stories out of incredible real events.
His non-documentary features have met with less success. Interestingly, though, 1999's The King, his deeply personal tale about religious fanaticism (starring William Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal), did well here.
“In South Korea, Albania and Australia it found an audience—so go figure!” the 49-year-old notes wryly. “Otherwise The King for my career was a spectacular self-defeat and I was unemployable after that. I couldn't get anything going at all so I then went back to documentaries."
After living in New York for 14 years Marsh (pictured, left) moved to Copenhagen three and half years ago, just after the US release of Man On Wire. “My wife is Danish and we have children so it's a nice place for them to grow up basically.” He now spends half his time working on the other side of the English Channel.
“When I went back to the UK on the back of Man on Wire I actually found myself in a very comfortable position of being able to work regularly,” he explains, “because there are still many different ways films can be financed there.” In quick succession he made Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980, Project Nim and Shadow Dancer, a Belfast-based drama that was shot in Dublin and London last year. “I've been making up for lost time,” Marsh quips.
Set in Northern Ireland during a tense transitional period in the country's history, Shadow Dancer represents Marsh's best fictional dramatic feature to date. Tom Bradby, a television correspondent during Northern Ireland's turmoil, adapted the screenplay from his novel. It focuses on the dilemma of Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) who followed the family tradition of joining the IRA after watching her younger brother being shot dead in 1973. Most of the film takes place in the '90s when as a single mother she must either become an informant for Clive Owen's MI5 detective or lose her son and be sent to prison for 25 years.
Marsh: “I get sent lot screenplays and almost didn't read this one. 'Oh, the troubles in Northern Ireland! Isn't that an exhausting and slightly depressing area to be thinking about?' But here there was this great universal premise, this impossible bargain that's being forced on the main character in the first act of the film. It just really spoke to me—the idea of betraying your family, your ideals, your views, your traditions and being forced to do that in order to be a mother. It's the kind of conflict that allows people to become psychologically involved. It's a very interesting starting point and I like the surprises in the story. I like watching movies where you don't know where it's going.”
In a plot where many of the characters are ambiguous it was important to cast wisely. Marsh had been intent on having Owen, who also loves the work of Alan Clarke, play the detective.
“Alan Clarke was great about how people walked, like Tim Roth in Made in Britain,” Marsh explains. “Clive and I talked about the walk being very important to this morally burdened character, who is forced to be cynical when it's not quite in his nature. He has a moral awakening that leads to his undoing to a certain extent. He's a classic good man in a bad world.”
Arguably though the success of this slow-burning film rests on the nuance of Riseborough's performance. “Andrea's a chameleon, a technically brilliant actress and in our film she had to be put upon, coerced, even petrified. On the first day when we were filming in the London Underground we didn't want to rehearse. So we did it for real with a few extras packed around her [Collette is carrying a bomb] and jumping on and off trains. From the moment we saw the rushes we went, 'Shit, she's great! We've got a movie here!'”
Riseborough shares many of her scenes with her two brothers played by Dublin actors Aidan Gillen and Domnhall Gleeson, son of Brendan. “Brendan's one of my favourite actors of all time,” notes Marsh. “Domnhall has been winning awards and has a youthful enthusiasm for whatever he's doing. There's a tenderness to his relationship with Collette.” Gillen meanwhile draws on his manipulative portrayals in Game of Thrones and The Wire (one of Marsh's favourite TV series) to portray the IRA hardliner, the consummate bad guy of the piece.
“In the '90s there was a peace process and most of the IRA went along with it, though some did not and Aidan's character is one of those,” explains Marsh. “Violence is what he knows and understands so he will stick with that. And that's the tragedy of that character and that situation generally I guess.”
While Northern Irish actors Martin McCann and Brid Brennan appear in minor roles—“They were the accent police,” Marsh muses—the film's bland palate reflects the weather of the region.
“Northern Ireland is a subdued, cloudy, rainy place,” he notes. “There were some very deliberate choices involved, like having Andrea wear a red coat all through the movie to contrast against that muted background. We watched Hitchcock's Marnie to see how we'd do that. It was an important aesthetic decision.”
Shadow Dancer screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival this month before it is released into cinemas on October 4 through Potential Films.