Shadow Dancer (M) 4 stars
Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen
DIRECTOR: JAMES MARSH
REVIEW: MARK NAGLAZAS
You will like this if you liked The General (John Boorman) The Devil's Own, Bloody Sunday.
While I enjoyed the latest James Bond adventure Skyfall (well, I was stirred rather than shaken) what's really gripping me now is the new wave of realistic, detail-oriented espionage/secret service movies and TV shows.
Earlier this year we had the superlative new version of John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; on television it's been hard to tear our eyes away from Homeland, the series about the race to prevent a terrorist attack on the US; and coming up early next year is Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's astonishing thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden (watch out for it come Oscar time).
James Marsh's Shadow Dancer, which is set in Belfast and deals with the struggle between Republican forces and the British secret service, is not in the same class as this top-drawer trio.
But what they all have in common is intense focus on the actual business of spying and covert action - on the hard slog of data mining, on the brutality and trauma of interrogation, on the lies and betrayals and collateral damage. Even love and sex are weapons of war in this new age of pragmatic, hard-nosed secret- service movies.
While Marsh has a background in documentary (Man on a Wire and the recent Project Nim) he reveals an almost Hitchcockian facility telling stories through images, launching Shadow Dancer with two stunning sequences that lay out the situation more swiftly and effectively than a dozen dialogue-heavy thrillers.
In the early 1970s the father in a Republican family sends his daughter Collette out to buy a packet of cigarettes. She in turn sends her little brother whose bloody body is later returned, a victim of sectarian violence.
We flash forward a couple of decades to a London subway where Collette, now committed to the Republican cause, leaves a bag and flees through the bowels of the underground but waiting outside are two agents from MI5.
Collette (Andrea Riseborough) finds herself in a hotel room with MI5 operative Mac (Clive Owen) who tells her she must become a British mole, spying on her IRA, or face years in jail and the loss of access to her child.
Collette reluctantly agrees and finds herself back in Belfast, where she reports to Mac any potential IRA action. However, when she is ordered to take part in a sanctioned hit by the increasingly suspicious IRA top brass Collette could become another victim of the civil war.
Marsh doesn't give Riseborough any big speeches or emotional blow-ups - the clock is ticking and she must move quickly to keep one step ahead of the Brits and her own people - but this talented performer still communicates an ocean of anguish and desperation and sheer steeliness. She could crack any time but she could also kill.
Owen must play second fiddle for much of Shadow Dancer. However, in the second half of the movie, when Mac realises that he and Collette may be part of a devious grander scheme run by his conniving cold fish of a boss (Gillian Anderson), Owen emerges, discovering a layer of humanity beneath his gruff, chilly spymaster exterior.
Indeed, the increasing confusion about exactly what's going on adds urgency and danger and sheer sexiness to a terrific scene in which Mac and Collette kiss, which leaves us wondering if it's part of the ruse or if something is happening between them.
The scene is scintillating not because it is romantically charged but because it doesn't break the overall mood of desperation and doom. They don't feel like lovers but passengers on a crashing plane clinging to each other.
Shadow Dancer is a modest achievement but I like it for its lack of histrionics, its tautness and mostly for Riseborough's resolute, quick-thinking heroine. How soon before we see a female James Bond?
Shadow Dancer is on at Somerville at 8pm from Monday until Sunday (excluding Christmas Day). It then screens at Joondalup Pines from January 1 to 6.