Few filmmakers can move confidently between making documentaries and fictional movies, but James Marsh is one of them. Madison film fans may have first heard of the British director from his haunting adaptation of "Wisconsin Death Trip," and he's gone on to make the documentaries "Man on Wire" and "Project Nim" as well as the fictional film "The King" with William Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal.
He's back to fiction with "Shadow Dancer," a drama that premiered Tuesday night at the Sundance Film Festival. The plot and dialogue are slim, but the film is able to rely on its atmosphere of bleak anxiety, as well as a terrific, deeply felt performance by Andrea Riseborough in the lead role.
The year is 1993, and she plays a Belfast woman named Colette, who after seeing her younger brother shot dead as a girl grew up to become an IRA terrorist. In an early silent scene, we see her carry a handbag containing a bomb onto a London train, but she ends up leaving the bomb in a stairwell and doesn't set the timer.
An MI5 agent named Mac (Clive Owen) thinks that Colette can be turned into a double agent for the British, and threatens her with prison if she doesn't become a mole. Fearing for her young son, she reluctantly agrees to inform on the IRA from within.
If "Shadow Dancer" sounds like a thriller, it's very short on thrills. Instead, Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby (adapting his novel) have made sort of a British miserablist version of a spy story, where a deep physical and moral gloom pervades every scene. Colette naturally fears getting found out by her friends in the IRA, but Mac also finds himself isolated within his department, and unsure if he can protect Colette. (The film nicely subverts our expectations of Owen playing a crusading hero who will inevitably save the day.)
The real standout is Riseborough, who gives a gorgeously controlled performance. Colette has to stay quiet and keep a poker face when dealing with both the IRA and the British, but we can see the emotions - mostly fearful ones - she's trying to keep in check. Between this, "Brighton Rock" and the upcoming "W.E.," she's very quickly becoming an actress to be reckoned with.
Riseborough joined Marsh at the screening, and said that while both did a lot of research about living in Northern Ireland at the time, mostly that preparation served for her to get inside the emotions of a woman like Colette.
"Truly it's just to feel it, and any preparations you do have to be completely abandoned so you can live it," she said. "You're in a constant state of anxiety while watching it."
Then Riseborough chuckled, realizing that "constant state of anxiety" might not play well on a movie poster. "Great selling point."