Witness the primal urge of a mother
The depth of feeling that a mother has for her children is utterly primal, yet despite the power of this instinct and the storytelling opportunities it offers, it is something rarely explored in feature films. Collette McVeigh, the main character in Shadow Dancer, is driven by her love for her young son. It’s not what the film is about, but it underpins her story. Collette is a single mother with siblings embedded in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). When she finds herself in the hands of the UK’s counter intelligence and security agency, MI5, she has to make some very tough choices.
Experience authentic emotional truth
Fiction films made by fine documentary makers often have an intrinsic truth and this is a good example. James Marsh directed Shadow Dancer after the two films he’s best known for: Oscar-winner Man on Wire, about tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and Project Nim, the brilliant but sorry tale of a chimpanzee brought up by humans. When he committed to Shadow Dancer he convinced the rest of the team to focus more on the personal toll on Collette and less on the exact nature of the political situation in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, which is when the film is set. This is why the film is most accurately described as a psychological thriller. That said, Marsh read extensively on the history of Ireland and there is no doubt that his loyalty to authenticity adds to this film’s emotional power. But the script already had a realistic edge before Marsh was invited on board: scriptwriter Tom Bradby adapted the film from his own novel, written after he’d worked as a journalist in Ireland.
Its subdued watercolour feel
Shadow Dancer has a subdued watercolour feel to it that is out of step with the distractingly flashy look of many contemporary films. It’s a visual style that also leaves a lot of room for story.
Collette has strength and delicacy
Andrea Riseborough, in portraying Collette, had to find a balance between hiding what was going on inside her to the surrounding characters and showing what was going on inside her to the audience. She pulls this off with amazing skill and creates a character that has strength, delicacy and a quiet desperation. It was her role in Brighton Rock that led the filmmakers to her. Not surprisingly, she won a number of best actress awards in the UK for the incredible performance; it always says a lot when local audiences and the local film community acknowledge their own. Clive Owen is exemplary as always, Gillian Anderson plays his hardnut boss, and there’s a lot of pleasure in seeing so many redheads in the supporting cast. Interestingly, it was Brid Brennan, who plays Collette’s mother, who was cast first. Then Marsh built the family around her.
Watch the trailer below: