James Marsh (UK 2012)
Andrea Risborough; Clive Owen
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema: 29 Aug 2012
Famous red raincoat
James Marsh’s (JM) Shadow Dancer (SD) looks like a TV mini series condensed into a feature film. It brings nothing to cinema except TV values, both in its aesthetic and structure.
The main characters Max and Clair and Kevin are no more than cogs in SD’s mechanical espionage like plot Max an MI5 officer who turns the IRA operative Claire who is in her turn hunted out by her IRA minder Kevin. This being TV the character roles depend on haircuts and costumes rather than more internalised attributes. The protagonist, Claire as a women has to be drawn as a fully rounded character, a mother with a young child as well as a terrorist. But even this dual role doesn’t extend the range of responses in her as a character.
TV films like to make the claim that they are about ‘real people’ (perhaps this means they are like the average viewer) This controlling concept introduces into the core of SD a primary clash of interests in the life of Claire: her family which defines her and her tribal loyalty which prompts her action. Clair’s dilemma, set up in the second section of SD is that she has to decide for whom she is playing: herself or the IRA.
At the level of its narrative SD is a concatenation of unlikely initial propositions that proceed to become ever more far fetched. Although in desperation JM tries to graft on a covert passion for Claire by her handler Max, it simply reflects the film’s problems in maintaining its own internal credibility. JM as director is increasingly caught in a familiar pincer movement of his own devising. He wants his film to have a realist core: characters that appear to be located within the strong folds of the everyday; but JM also wants action. A certain internal structural narrative logic is erected: the struggle, the family the housing estate the political background. But this establishing narrative structure is increasingly discredited by the logic of the action which makes demands that are at odds with background. The background is in effect degraded left behind by the primacy of the action generated tensions: erotic violent emotional.
In SD, particularly in relation to Clair the two strands of the scripting become increasingly detached. In fact SD is difficult to swallow even in its initial proposition at the point when we realise the IRA have ordered Claire to bomb London. She will be vulnerable as an agent if caught (because of her family situation), but her IRA minders overlook her unaccounted time in London. If we go with the poetic license implicit in this opening proposition, we then have a narrative and action development which becomes increasingly absurd. Claire goes to meet her MI5 handler in a ‘remote’ location which she can only get to by walking or public transport because she does not have a car. She walks or perhaps buses (the film is silent on this point) to this rendez-vous dressed in a bright red fashionable macintosh. Looking like a sexy telephone box in case anyone should have failed to spot her. The action demands of film mean that Claire has to look attractive and alluring and vulnerable, so she has to be provided with some sort of outer garment sheath to signal these defining features.
What the film tries to do is to transpose the tensions of Le Carre spook culture onto a more natural Irish setting. The poster for SD contains the strap line: Mother daughter sister spy. Le Carre’s world, as depicted in novels and even in film, functions on its own terms in a world parallel to the everyday. The mechanisms at work in the espionage world work better as an abstracted tenplate on which the forces in play can be seen clearly. The tensions the contradictions the stratagems of the spooks gain greater force and piquancy. And the roles played by the characters gain clarity from the fact that they are not the rounded individuals beloved by the TV industry.
Caught in this classic pincer of opposing purposes, SD has nothing else to do but take itself seriously as its story becomes more and more of a joke. Though it is a telling point that this is a film totally devoid of intentional humour. Though there is in the cack handed set ups, such as the attempted assassination, a certain amount of unintentional humour.
Steve McQueen’s Hunger as a movie/installation added a layer of understanding to Bobby Sands: the desperation of his situation, the Maze prison, the state of mind that impelled him to direct confrontation with Margaret Thatcher. There is nothing like this kind of ambition set in play here. The acting is all contemporary monogestural unipart posturing, and the state of mind of the lead players ignored, they are no more than the sum of their actions.
Max and Clair sleep/walk their way through the film. She in her famous red raincoat he in his regulation fit spook English suit that says MI5. Their different conflicts are depicted as purely mechanical processes instigated by the wheels of the plot which in itself is no more than a sub standard le Carre fare. JM uninterested in anything other than his plot mechanics, is unable to engineer any insight into character. He simply opts for expressive safety and confines his players in a straightjacket of the one dead pan look
With so much Cinema sold out to the demands of the TV companies, it is no surprise that the mechanics of SD’s are complemented by the mechanics of the shooting script. JM’s film does nothing to alarm TV buyers. Its camera work concentrates on the routine collection of regulation shots/ reverse shot. After its routine editing, add some tinkly music and few old ‘70’s records, one red hot fetish raincoat for the poster and the channel trail, and you have a very saleable TV movie that is not cinema. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org