James Marsh is the rare filmmaker to extoll the virtues of not giving audiences the full picture.
“Certainly the films I like to go and see have that effect on me where you feel like the filmmakers have given you some space at the end to just complete it for yourself,” Marsh tells TakePart.
That space may linger for days after seeing Shadow Dancer. The latest film from the Oscar-winning director of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, a nonfiction portrait of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, is a drama set during the Troubles—the decades-spanning civil war in Northern Ireland. Marsh again trains his focus on a person walking a tightrope, albeit a moral one: Collette, a single mother (Andrea Riseborough) becomes an informant for British intelligence agency M:I5 after being involved in an Irish Republican Army bombing plot gone awry. She must choose between caring for her son or turning in her brothers.
“I felt like it was a thriller that unfolded in a realistic way and not in a way that was contrived as so often with gadgets, car chases and loud bangs," says Marsh of his attraction to the script by Tom Bradby. Bradby drew upon his experiences as a TV correspondent in Belfast at the peak of the Troubles.
Knowing from his documentary work that real life can often be a more suspenseful backdrop than fiction, Marsh saw an opportunity to examine the long-term impact of violent conflict, not only as it exists physically in a place where it’s a part of everyday life, but psychologically as Collette’s loyalties shift toward and away from a cause she was indoctrinated into by birth and her family.
Another appeal for the filmmaker was seeing a rarely explored side of the well-documented turmoil.
‘It’s not tied up neatly, this film,’ says Director James Marsh. ‘You want people to have something to ponder.’
“It’s a woman’s story, essentially, of mothers in this conflict as much as the men who are responsible for much of the bad stuff that’s going on,” says Marsh. “That felt like a more unusual angle for a film about Northern Ireland to address.”
Its unique perspective provides Shadow Dancer with additional layers of intrigue. Collette’s interactions with her chief contact at M:I5 (Clive Owen) are sparked by gender politics as much as by the British counterintelligence agency’s race against the clock. Furthermore, according to Marsh, telling the story from the woman’s focus led to a more accurate representation of the era.
Marsh heightened the authenticity by surrounding himself with cast and crew from the region. Beyond their onscreen contributions, the director’s collaborators provided reality checks with their personal recollections of the Troubles.
One crew member’s memory of how IRA funerals were arranged to both honor the dead and carry on their spirit of protest in the face of their British army counterparts resulted in one of the film’s most intense scenes: A burial escalating into a full-fledged gun battle.
“The women would almost always be the people who would smuggle the gun into the crowd and form a chain. That’s exactly what we did in the film,” says Marsh. “Those are the sort of things that enriched the film and kept it authentic—an Irish film about an Irish conflict.”
Despite its specificity of locale, Shadow Dancer is a thriller that holds universal truths about navigating thorny political issues created by the nature of terrorism. That’s just the way Marsh likes it.
“It’s not tied up neatly, this film,” says Marsh. “You want people to have something to ponder.”
Shadow Dancer is now playing in select theaters and available on Demand.
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