If you’ll excuse the pun, Andrea Riseborough is a star on the rise. In her home ground of Great Britain she’s famed for her role in 2010′s “Brighton Rock,” and in the U.S. she turned heads last year with her performance in Madonna’s “W.E.” In her face you see a wealth of what many psychiatrists have described as the most valued human state of the modern era: vulnerability.
Director James Marsh deploys Riseborough’s asset of nuanced expression to full advantage in “Shadow Dancer”: In this, you’ll get to see Riseborough in about 50 shades of gray. The tiny snag here is that it’s all gray.
In this film set in 1990s Belfast, toward the end of the period rather understatedly known as The Troubles, Riseborough plays Colette McVeigh, member of an IRA terrorist cell consisting mainly of her brothers and neighbors. When she botches a bomb plot in London, Colette draws the attention of M15 officer Mac (Clive Owen) and he offers her a deal: Go to prison for 25 years or work for him by spying on her family and reporting back.
Colette has no choice, since her young son’s welfare hangs in the balance; but with each passing day she’s crushed by feelings of guilt and doubt about her brothers’ blind dedication to terrorist activities. At the same time, the sense of betrayal brings on waves of self-loathing. Still, Colette meets Mac once a week — usually in his car, parked in a field— like a joyless lover on a sordid tryst.
Marsh, best known for the elegant and brilliant documentary “Man on Wire,” keeps the story surprisingly (and perhaps atypically) personal. Adapted from a novel by BBC journalist Tom Bradby, who also wrote the screenplay, “Shadow Dancer,” for all its political trappings, presents almost no political view, and on occasion you wish Marsh would take sides or at least lay out good/bad boundaries. Any politics you see here are confined within relationships: Colette and Mac, Colette and her brothers, and Mac and his manipulative boss Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson), who insists on deciding how much to give Colette and how much to yank away from her.
In many ways it recalls another IRA movie, 1997′s “The Devil’s Own,” in which Brad Pitt plays a terrorist who says that an Irish tale never has a happy ending. And it’s true, “Shadow Dancer” (whose title refers to the code name of a mission) is bleak and oppressive, suffocating the viewer in its inevitable agony. Even the weather cooperates, raining or sleeting right on the characters when they’re umbrella-less and obviously freezing.
If late 20th-century authenticity is what you’re looking for, “Shadow Dancer” has it by the bucketful. Marsh paints a terrifically precise picture here, but any answers as to the why behind all the violence and tragedy are kept well under wraps.
With the ending comes an overwhelming sense of sadness — a legacy of evil has been passed from the previous century to this one. Colette’s plight is as old and familiar as war itself. The sight of her tilting her face up at the sky in helpless silent prayer, a woman who has made all the wrong choices because they were the only ones available, feels timeless, inevitable and impossible to forget.