One of the more underrated breakout films to come from out of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival was James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, a stirring political thriller set during the latter days of the Northern Ireland conflict when the IRA were still fighting back against their British oppressors in ways that often crossed the line into terrorism.
Caught in the middle of it is a Belfast woman named Collette McVeigh, played by Andrea Riseborough, who as a young girl watched her brother die in the conflict, and decades later is coerced into leaving a bomb in the London Tube. She’s caught and brought before Clive Owen’s MI6 agent “Mac,” who returns Collette home to Belfast under the condition that she acts as his mole and feeds him information, putting Collette in great danger from her very own family.
Marsh is best known for his docs Man on Wire and Project NIM but working from a screenplay by Tom Bradby, who adapted his own book, he’s created his finest dramatic filmwork to date, which is why it’s this week’s Chosen One in the Weekend Warrior column.
Earlier this week, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Owen and Riseborough for a couple of brief interviews. Unfortunately we had some technical glitches during the recording of our interview with Andrea Riseborough–who is absolutely brilliant in the film, one of the best performances you’ll see all year–but she talked to us about how tender the subject still is in England and told us her own memories of the Northern Irish conflict but from when she was a little girl in England and how there were nightly news reports even though she never got the impression she was getting the whole story. It was terrific stuff and sadly, it’s lost to the ether, stories that Riseborough will have to share with someone else another day.
“I loved the script,” Owen told us when asked about playing yet another MI6 agent, something he’s gotten quite adept at. “I thought it was a really tight, taut well-written piece of material and I was a big fan of James Marsh’s–I loved Man on Wire’ and his other film Nim’ as well–and there was something to me that the script was well-written and well crafted that I wanted to be involved with it. In some ways I responded to the material as a whole rather than just my character.”
Director James Marsh asked the actors not to read the book before shooting, but Riseborough had high praise for author Tom Bradby’s work. “Tom’s relationship (with Northern Ireland) was initially purely political but then he formed a personal relationship with Northern Ireland because he invested in the people and good for him for after the fact having written a book on it and having told some of the stories he felt needed to be told from the other side if you will.”
Generally, we get the impression Riseborough doesn’t like talking about her process or how she researches roles, but in this case she really couldn’t tell us whom she talked to in preparing for the role because it could put lives in danger. “After all the academic research and every archival piece of footage I could watch, I really just wanted to get on the ground so I went to Belfast and spent all this time in Belfast before we started shooting,” she explained.
“I never felt that the script was in any way judgmental,” Owen responded when asked whether he had concerns about possibly reopening old wounds with the material. “I felt it was a very human story and I feel that again, because of the way James handled the script that you come away from the film thinking that it’s a very tough place and a tough time. You’re watching all the characters navigate their way through and it’s not judgmental, it’s not taking sides, it’s not good guys or bad guys. It’s a human drama first of all.”
He continued, “I grew up during that time obviously and then in the late 80s I toured a play and we went to Belfast for a week so I have a very strong memory of what Belfast was like at that time. There were soldiers on the street, there were helicopters with search lights at night. It was a tough place. I remember the people being great, but it was a tough environment.”
“I think in any place where you’ve got conflict and the whole idea of enlisting people to inform is still obviously very very current. By all accounts, this kind of thing went on an awful lot during that time,” he said about the timeliness of the subject matter.
Both actors talked about working with James Marsh, a director who has excelled at the documentary format but hasn’t quite had the same impact with his dramatic work. We wondered whether there was a noticeable difference working with such a skilled documentarian.
“The thing that I really love about James’ extraordinary style of filmmaking is that he’s so gently and with encouragement makes his subjects feel at ease in his documentaries and it allows you into their eyes, just for a glimpse of them questioning themselves morally or perhaps saying something with great conviction and then reflecting on the real sadness that it caused them at the time,” Riseborough told us. “He really gets into people’s eyes, because I think he builds a real trust with them. He’s a very, very kind person, very empathic and very generous person and I was really hoping he could capture all those things within Collette.”
“I think it was a big reason for me wanting to do the film is that he comes from the world of documentaries, because documentary makers inherently are after something truthful,” Owen confirmed. “When they’re making a documentary they’re trying to hone in on something very real and authentic and to do a film that’s set in this environment and this time, it’s very sensitive material and they needed very, very careful handling. I think it’s a huge plus that he comes from documentaries. It just means that he’s very tasteful and sensitive and delicate in how he handled a piece of material like this.”
Most people who walk away from Shadow Dancer will be absolutely knocked out by Riseborough’s performance and both actors talked about taking on such intense scenes.
“I think my whole commitment to the film was only about four weeks and a lot of my stuff was with Andrea, but I think she’s a really serious actress and I think she’s given a really really great performance,” Owen said. “In some ways, the tension of the film is carried within her. It’s not like she has tons of dialogue to express what she’s feeling and thinking all the time, but she imbues every scene with a kind of tension that for me makes the film. I think it’s a really fine performance.”
Riseborough explained some of how that performance was enhanced by cutting out dialogue. “Originally the script was very dialogue-heavy for Collette and the more time I spent in Belfast in and around the people that we were dealing with, the more I knew that her strength would be in her silence. The more we could pare it down, the more authentic it would be, because she’s living in a paranoid time where you not only couldn’t trust friends but can’t trust family members. A very silent time, a very bleak landscape and James was really on board with that and Tom (Bradby) was really on board with that.”
Lastly, we’re going to talk about a scene that’s somewhat of a SPOILER if you haven’t seen the movie and that’s the rather unconventional kiss the two stars share.
“I don’t think you can call it a kissing scene,” Riseborough responded to our question about the scene. “I think it’s just a moment of two people feeling so inhuman that it’s just a feral quality of needing to feel alive and to have some physical connection with someone. There’s nothing romantic about it, there’s very little sexual about it, it’s just a need for human contact, touch, faith, trust, hope and the want of somebody else’s breath and body. It’s not in any way romantic or beautiful. There’s beauty in its sadness really, desperation.”
“Well I loved that scene when I read it on the page because it was surprising, it was unusual, and as you say, you’ve seen versions of this film where that would develop into something else that would be very cliché,” Owen agreed. “It was genuinely surprising when I read the script and I loved it. It comes from out of nowhere and they quickly move on from it. It’s like some furtive grab at humanity really in this very bleak world and it was just about trying to make sure we captured that in a very honest way and we made that scene as surprising as it was on the page. I loved it because it was unpredictable and surprising.”
One of the amazing things about Riseborough as an actress is that she often inhabits her roles so fully she’s not recognizable (as is the case with her role in the recent Disconnect), so we asked her about that before she was dragged away by her handlers. “It’s something I’m very interested in and I’m just so interested in people and all their different facets. They’re so fascinating and to move to the rhythm of someone else’s life is just my privilege and pleasure and anything I can do to be completely absorbed in that and be a part of telling a story just makes me very happy.”
Since last we spoke to him, Owen filmed The Last Knights with Morgan Freeman in Prague and Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures opposite Juliette Binoche, but as far as those recent rumors that Owen may have convinced Steven Soderbergh out of retirement to direct the pilot for his Cinemax series “The Knick,” this is all he had to say, “It’s early days but we are talking about doing something together, yeah.”
Shadow Dancer opens in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine and Santa Monica on Friday, May 31, and you can see where else it’s playing on the official site. You can also watch a video interview we did at Sundance with James Marsh here.