Subdued Suspense: James Marsh on Shadow Dancer
James Marsh likes a challenge. Best known for his Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, the director is discussing the opening sequence of his latest film Shadow Dancer, a slow-burning spy thriller set against the backdrop of the peace process talks in Northern Ireland in 1993. A master class in understated tension, it features an extended scene in which Colette (Andrea Riseborough), carrying a large bag, appears to be acting rather suspiciously in the London Underground. "In the original [screenplay] it was a big epic car chase with motorbikes and all sorts of stuff going on, and I knew we couldn't afford to do that. You can achieve the same, maybe even more interesting, levels of suspense just by keeping it real and making the audience gradually discover what might be happening in the underground sequence," Marsh reflects. "That, to me, is more interesting as a director because it's actually harder to do that than it is to blow things up and do car chases. There's no idea in a car chase, it's a technical exercise, whereas the way we did it was much more a psychological exercise, which is harder to do."
Based on a novel by former news correspondent Tom Bradby, Shadow Dancer is about a family torn apart by the Troubles. More specifically, its focus is on Colette, an IRA member who becomes an informant for MI5, and her relationship with her British handler Mac (Clive Owen). While it is assumed that viewers will have some kind of knowledge of the events that shape the story, Marsh is less interested in the politics, and more interested in how the politics affect the characters. "It's a thriller based on real, interesting, human choices. It definitely has the conventions of a thriller, I think, conventions of what happens when you deceive people, betray them, and the treachery in the film is very believable given the situation. There are many examples of things we now know of, moles in the IRA being run by MI5 for this reason or that reason, so you get conventions of a thriller through a very realistic situation, and I liked the idea of it being set in a domestic environment, the spying, the snooping."
Marsh may be moving away from documentary films, but even this fictionalised account is rooted in reality, and a very recent reality at that. Yet the director is not afraid to broach a subject that, for many, still evokes painful memories. "Time has not healed that situation and it may be another hundred years before it will, but at the same time it's part of our collective recent history and I think we should be able to make dramatic stories." So did he feel accuracy was important in his retelling of historical details? "I think that the facts are not the same as the truth, and the truth in the dramatic sense is not the same as the real truth... I don't think filmmakers have responsibilities beyond trying to find the truth in a situation dramatically, and if they don't then you kind of know it really quickly, so hopefully we'll pass the test of it being psychologically and dramatically truthful as opposed to it being enslaved by real events," he states. While Shadow Dancer received critical acclaim at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, perhaps more telling was its reception following a screening at Belfast Film Festival in June, when it was given the seal of approval by both a "very feisty woman who was a member of the IRA" and "a former hunger striker." How did Marsh feel about this? "That was about as good as we could get," he laughs. "It was brilliant."