This movie is surprising in many ways: its plot is unpredictable, it is plotted unpredictably ( which is different ) and it is shot with a bold confidence ill-befitting a first time feature director such as James Marsh. Of course Marsh is not a man without experience behind the camera, he has directed before and to some serious acclaim; but those were documentaries and this is a taut art-house thriller, which in many ways makes the result even more surprising. Yes his debut was titled Man on Wire and that title was very literal, but that film was a stroll in comparison to this one; filming a single figure as he balances on a razor’s edge is one thing, but setting an entire theatre audience on the last inch of their seats and balancing them there for near one hundred minutes is another thing entirely and that is exactly what he managed here.
Thrillers are a dime a dozen though, seen as trash by many, reserved for airport reading or airplane viewing and nothing else, not fit for public display or pretentious posturing. Shadow Dancer though shares nearly nothing in common with those titles and yet it manages to achieve exactly what they intend. Whereas your average thriller is built on bombast and high scale stakes Shadow is intimately small and scarily simple; the premise is this: The Troubles of the seventies to nineties, when catholic and protestant blood spilt on the streets of Belfast on a scale similar to that now seen in Gaza; Colette, a single woman – daughter, sister and mother all – is enlisted by both sides through emotional blackmail and the threat of an end to her life; neither care about her as anything but a tool and both are willing to do very bad things if she doesn’t cooperate completely.
The first thing that you notice about the film post-prelude is the silence. We are dropped into this world under an order of strict omertà; no one will talk to us, no one tells us what’s going on or who is in charge. For anyone to spend so much of their movie sans dialogue is a strong choice, but for a documentary maker, whose prior works are basically built of and around talking heads, to do it takes real guts. Even when the characters do unite in scenes though they still rarely speak and never speak for us; they don’t monologue or utter exposition because they’re afraid to, afraid to be overheard and misinterpreted by either side and really, they have very good reason to be. Because of this so much goes unsaid and unexplained, the film asks a lot of you and rarely gives back, there are no great cathartic moments or outpourings of emotion.
It is though very much an emotional movie. Yes, the plot is clever and takes all of those aforementioned twists and turns but above all else it is about evoking a certain feeling in the audience. The characters don’t speak, but we see in their eyes and faces full and frightening stories. The way two characters look at one another, or how one looks away, the way that they don’t answer a question: all of these ticks and traits tell us so much more than a quickly flickering shot of a file ever could ( even with the overdubbed dialogue you feel that shot would have had in a dodo). That Marsh is able to capture all of this from his cast – an ensemble so convincing that the normally amazing Clive Owen stands out as kind of a weak link – isn’t as surprising as it may seem; documentaries are after all studies of human behaviors and acting at its core is simply the replication of such things. Here then the clones are both compelling and hauntingly human.
Honestly it seems like there is so much of this movie that went over my head – and not just because the few things actually said were done so in a deep northern brogue – and yet I don’t much mind. I don’t feel as if I missed anything, just that there is more awaiting me. There are uncertainties in people’s relationships and the power structures that could be cleared up in a second viewing, there are lines of dialogue uttered early on that may or may not make dramatic revelations to the informed and there are small filaments of information in those files that could well do the same (narrative flaws that both I and the film are equally at fault for). Personally though I don’t much mind because the personal journey of the film was so powerful.
Shadow Dancer is so supremely thrilling because Marsh makes the story seem real – it is less contrived even than his documentaries, in an Alanis Morissette sort of irony – and like it is really happening to us. Sit down to watch this movie and you will spend two hours in war torn Ireland. The people that lived there at the time were in a war zone and I think sometimes we forget that. They had to be on edge everywhere and felt safe nowhere and this applies to Colette especially; her family were made into her enemies and her home a hell, her only safe-zone the car of Clive Owen’s agent or the cell where she is taken when under arrest.
There is a sense of dread pervading every scene of Shadow Dancer, in every shot the Irish sky is cloudy grey as if a storm were coming. So we sit and wait for the lightning to strike, for the rains to come but they never do; the humidity just heightens and out stomachs turn till we feel sick. The tension isn’t just palpable, it’s poisonous. Then we get out of the cinema and go home with a sigh of relief; something Colette, company and a whole country were never able to do. For them surprises were never a good thing, they were stricken by suspense and you will be too throughout Shadow Dancer. Marsh takes a big step and doesn’t slip.
(Edit: So it turns out that I was wrong about this being Marsh’s first fictional feature, he has directed one to two others (depending on how you class TV movies, etc. I don’t see that this changes the quality of the content in any way though, or that it makes it any less of a surprise; it just makes me wrong on one count.)