Not everything from Ireland travels as well as the whiskey. Like mud-thick porridge, Shadow Dancer, another dreary, confusing conspiracy thriller about the Irish “troubles,” is one of them.
In the 1970s, when she was growing up in war-torn Belfast, a girl named Collette McVeigh sent her little brother out to buy cigarettes for their father. He was killed in a gun battle between British forces and Irish rebels. The traumatic guilt turned Collette into a radical Republican hell-bent on revenge. Cut to 1993. Now a grown woman and single mother played by Andrea Riseborough, who played the Duchess of Windsor in Madonna’s ill-fated W.E., Collette is caught planting a bomb in a London subway station, arrested, and after much scrutiny, recruited as a “mole” by a British Intelligence officer named Mac (Clive Owen) to spy on her own family. At first hostile and defiant, she finally agrees to the job as a way to make money, avoid prison and hold on to her son until the conflicts end and life returns to normal. Once a week, she and Mac meet near the Belfast coast, where she promises to supply information about her two brothers, Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), both trusted fuses in the arsenal of IRA activists. When Connor forces her to play a role in the assassination of a Northern Ireland police detective, Colleen finds herself caught in the middle of two loyalties, her life in danger from her brothers, who would kill her if they knew she was a British informant, and her trust in the enemy is dashed when Mac’s promise of protection is jeopardized by his superior (Gillian Anderson) for reasons that are never clear. From this point on, Shadow Dancer falls apart and never regains its footing.
The direction by James Marsh is focused and direct, but a viewer’s confusion while sifting through entirely too many characters and reams of secret information in a file with the code name “Shadow Dancer” only leads to an understandable loss of interest. Midway, when Collette’s brothers’ plans are derailed and suspicion arises regarding a possible leak in the IRA’s secret information highway, the direction turns pedantic, showing the opening of every door, the parking of every car. In the end, it’s not Collette who betrays her family, but someone you least expect. When the plot twists arrive, they’re so contrived that you don’t know whether to yawn or utter a stifled “Huh?”
Shadow Dancer is a dull, hackneyed disappointment that is most effective when it draws you into the daily working routine of the McVeigh household. Living in this claustrophobic environment with her two siblings and their seemingly indifferent, apolitical mother, Collette faces an endless crisis from all sides, as well as a growing attraction to Mac, her British connection (a total waste of Mr. Owen’s time and talent). The screenplay by Tom Bradby (based on his own novel) is more concerned with life in the home of a terrorist family than in the clichéd action in the streets of Northern Ireland, which we’ve seen enough of in better films than this. The movie eventually wafts into a detective story, which would be doubly effective if only we could hack our way through the thickly coated Irish brogues that render so much of the dialogue incomprehensible. The stark Dublin locations, with ugly brown brick council flats the color of nicotine stains, add an appropriately grim touch to the Belfast settings of 20 years ago, and Ms. Riseborough provides a suspenseful element as you try to read the emotions behind her stoic expressions. Still, the rewards are slim in a minor film that is unlikely to stir up much excitement on American marquees. Color it gone.
Written by Tom Bradby
Directed by James Marsh
Starring Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough and Gillian Anderson
Running time: 101 mins.
Rating: 2/4 stars