More is unspoken than spoken in Shadow
Dancer, an elegantly overcast film about an IRA mole in 1990s Belfast, directed by James Marsh, the documentary savant who delighted and thrilled us with Man on Wire and Project Nim.
The film opens with what might be mistaken for a scene of domestic tranquility in 1970s Northern Ireland. A young Collette plays with beads in a living room while her father talks politics on the phone and asks her to pick up some cigarettes for him down the street. Collette instead sends her younger brother, who's killed in the crossfire of I.R.A. and British forces outside.
Fast-forward to 1993. Collette (Andrea Risebourgh, Oblivion), is now a tall and lovely, if wide-eyed I.R.A. fighter herself and she's still frazzled by the memory of her brother's death. After placing a bomb in a London subway stop — in an immaculately wrought wordless sequence—she's collected by MI5 officers and offered a bargain by the dour, all-business point man Mac (Clive Owen). Collette will be spared decades of imprisonment and guaranteed safety for her young son if she consents to being an informant and reports on the activities of her two other brothers.
Tension mounts and assumes an almost tornadic (though again, very quiet) force as Collette deflects suspicions from the local insurgents and their slinky boss (David Wilmot) while Mac butts heads with his commander (Gillian Anderson) and wises up to an elaborate agenda within MI5 leadership in which Collette is little more than a sacrificial pawn, meant to disguise another mole within the I.R.A. inner circle.
Despite its fine-tuned thrills, Shadow Dancer is somber through and through. The dialogue seems reduced to its purest, most essential form. Every line has a clear, clean purpose. And there's a power evident in the restraint. This one doesn't slog in the way of aspirational French minimalism. Though they admittedly lack the crackle and pop of something like The Departed, the shared silences between characters here are often just as gripping as their conversations.
The landscape, too, reflects a sullen mood. Marsh casts Belfast in its traditional palette of eternal gray. Characters are often obscured by curtains or doors or panes of foggy glass. About the only lighthearted moments you'll find are when you recognize Game of Thrones' "Littlefinger" Balish (Aiden Gillen) and Harry Potter's Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) as Collette's brothers.
Led by Risebourgh's stunning lead performance—flashes of Jessica Chastain—and further buttressed by Clive Owen's serviceable one, Shadow Dancer is a deft thriller which is perhaps most remarkable because it never explodes. It just simmers and simmers and simmers. The movie screens at 5:45 and 7:45 p.m. on Thursday, August 1, at the Mandel Screening Room at the Cleveland Institute of Art's Joseph McCullough Center.