As the son of a British mother, I have always had a fascination with the conflict between the IRA and the Thatcher-era British government, particularly how it played out with the IRA prison hunger strikes and how said conflict was resolved. And seeing how family members of prisoners (or free people) on the IRA side has been intriguing. For a related recommendation, the mid-‘90s Helen Mirren film Some Mother's Son is nice in this regard. And looking to cultivate some new ground in this area is the recent film Shadow Dancer, possessing some familiar faces.
Based on the Tom Bradby novel (Bradby adapted it into his first screenplay and was also Executive Producer on the film) and directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), the opening moments of the film find us following a woman named Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough, , Oblivion) traveling on the London Underground. She is Irish and a member of the IRA, attempting to deliver a bomb to a courier. She is intercepted by agents of the London MI5 and is met by Mac (Clive Owen, The Boys Are Back). Mac provides her with a deal: start informing on the activities of her friends or be imprisoned, and lose custody of her young son, particularly difficult as she is a single mother. When the IRA picks up wind of a possible mole in their group and suspicions begin to center on Colette, Mac works frantically to free her, despite the objections of one of her superiors in Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson, The X-Files).
The film does a good job in setting up the pieces on the game board when it comes to whose interests lie where. The opening scenes of the film find a young Colette witnessing the death of her brother at the hands of what she thinks may be a British soldier's gun (hence her motivation for revenge). Mac has been scoping her out as a target for months beforehand and he appears to know what strings to pull in order for her to cooperate. And Colette attempting to lead her life while having this ulterior motive, particularly under the household of her mother (Brid Brennan, Topsy-Turvy) is compelling to watch. Colette's place within the IRA appears to be solid when we first see her, her brother takes good care of her and she is loyal to the cause, and her alliance with Gerry (Aiden Gillen, Game of Thrones) is good, not only from a ‘Hey, that's Carcetti!' perspective, but from an actual acting one. Moreover, Riseborough's performance as Colette is especially impressive, handling conflict among her family and her MI5 handler with equal aplomb. Her work her should be placed alongside those of similar characters in the genre.
Performance aside, the film devolves from a solid first act to a shaky second one before ultimately becoming somewhat convoluted and trite in the third. As the film's most recognizable face, Owen's performance and character are decent, but then said character runs into his own conflicts while working in British intelligence that hamper his work. Considering Anderson's appearance as a de facto Agent Skinner, it gave me a laugh. Sadly, I got a bigger laugh when Anderson introduced a subplot in the film (accompanied by a scene to further illustrate it) that while viewing the film is unworthy and insulting to what the viewer has gone through to that point. Additionally, the ending is not only from out of left field to a degree, is somewhat extravagant for the understated story in front of it. I felt like my time was getting increasingly wasted while watching Shadow Dancer.
Which is a shame, because the cinematic backdrop of IRA clashes with the British have made for some great performances and films through the years. But Shadow Dancer reminded me a lot of Disconnect, a film starring Riseborough that I recently saw. Both films include polished work by her, both films have people larger audiences will spot and include solid exposition for the first hour or so. And ultimately, both films tend to misstep and falter in the end, leaving the viewer with a slight sour taste on their palates. Hopefully these are outliers as Riseborough has done good work and has much more left to do. But alas when it comes to IRA-centric films, if I asked Shadow Dancer to do what I want it to do, I would tell it to go away, but leave the Guinness.
Magnolia rolls Shadow Dancer out to Blu-ray with an AVC-encoded 2.35:1 widescreen presentation, with the overall results being solid. The film appears to be lit naturally, with the grays of the Irish weather looking as sharp as the greens of the scenery. Image detail is fairly consistent on the foreground, with some background detail being clear and providing a bit of depth. Darker moments hold up nicely and black levels present a decent contrast to the pale Irish skin tones. All in all it looks very good.
The DTS HD-MA 5.1 surround for the film is good, though most of the film is dialogue-driven. With that said, the aforementioned dialogue is well-balanced, though in slightly more dynamic sequences (the opening scenes in London's tube station coming to mind) there is an understated level of immersion in the scenes. And there is even a moment of subwoofer engagement at the very end. It will not wow you, but it is fine from a sonic perspective.
The disc has a few things, starting with a Behind the Scenes featurette (8:28) with interviews from the cast and crew as to their thoughts on and in Bradby's case, inspiration for the movie, and covering the background and politics of the time. The cast also share their thoughts on the roles they play and on each other and Marsh. The extended interviews are in a separate section with many of the participants, plus a couple others (27:28). What surprised me was that Anderson apparently has some sort of pseudo Brit accent in her piece that left me mildly jaw-dropped. AXS TV provides their own look at the movie, but at three minutes it is brief.
Shadow Dancer is a decent story set against a recent epoch that not many Americans would be familiar with outside of a few notable figures here and there. And the performances of the film's stars are decent, but ultimately the story does not rise up to match the caliber of Riseborough and Owen. Technically the disc is fine, and the supplements were a minor surprise, and it is worth checking out for a welcome change of pace.