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Shadow Dancer – review

Glances say more than words in this IRA thriller, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Shadow Dancer (15)
dir:James Marsh

One quandary for anyone making a thriller is how much to reveal to the audience and when. In Vertigo, which the august journal Sight and Sound recently voted the most totally superduper film ever, Alfred Hitchcock spills the beans early, transforming the picture from a thriller reliant on narrative ambush to an analysis of amour fou, in which suspense warps into dread. Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View, on the other hand, never lets us know more than the hero. For such a film to achieve an impact beyond its first viewing, any unforeseen pay-off must be a logical extension of what’s gone before. That’s why The Parallax View remains in our esteem and our DVD collections while the same director’s Presumed Innocent, with its “twist” ending, does not.

It’s impossible to say whether Shadow Dancer will be remembered as long as a Hitchcock or a good Pakula – but it’s unusual in containing elements of both approaches, the slow burn and the scalding surprise. The picture opens in Belfast in 1973. A young girl, sent out by her father to buy his smokes, seconds her younger brother instead to carry out the task while she stays at home threading plastic beads on to a string – a makeshift rosary that hints at the guilt to come. Clever writing, this, by Tom Bradby, the ITV News reporter who adapted the screenplay from his novel: the child’s cigarette errand is a period detail that functions also on the levels of plot and motivation. When the boy returns, he is dying from a gunshot wound. No further explanation is needed for the course his sister’s life will take.

When we next see Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), it is 20 years later, on the eve of the Joint Declaration of Peace, and she is taking a bomb on to the London Underground. After planting her device, she is dragged off to a bright, bare hotel room where an MI5 agent, Mac (Clive Owen), gives her the skinny: should she refuse now to turn informant on her brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), she will be sent to prison and her young son taken into care. Knowing Colette’s file as we do, Mac can be fairly sure she won’t let another cherished young boy slip through her fingers.

The director, James Marsh, returns to fiction here, having made his name in documentary with Man on Wire and Project Nim. There is nothing of that genre in the look of the new movie. Its visual motif is the stylised long-lens close-up, which keeps the subject’s face in focus while everything below the chin dissolves into a haze. We only ever see the tip of the iceberg.

Riseborough gets the lion’s share of those close-ups and the film couldn’t wish for a performer more adept at keeping her own counsel. Whether she’s watching her son master his new bicycle or attending an interrogation that could end with her torture, she has the grave fragility of a perpetual widow. With so few lines, we can never be certain what she’s thinking about, though “Must buy a new mackintosh” should be high on her list: in the film’s dour landscape, her garish red coat serves a symbolic purpose (she’s bloodstained) but might not be the best fashion choice for those clandestine meetings with MI5.

The prologue does a lot of the work for Riseborough and for the film. It’s telling that no one ever refers to the dead boy, either because they’re talked out or bottled up. Yet this mood liberates Marsh to prune back exposition and characterisation to its barest minimum, with pregnant glances filling in for pages of dialogue. Occasionally he is too severe, cutting through flesh and into bone. Does key information about Gerry, for instance, now reside on the cutting room floor? For a man who occupies MI5’s attention, he makes only the weakest of impressions, a wallflower at his own party.

A film that insists that its characters are unknowable is in danger of relegating them to enigmatic specks in the distance but Shadow Dancer gets the balance about right, maintaining the urgency of Collette’s predicament without explaining or sanitising her. Surprises that could have been cataclysmic tend to register here as muted tremors, which is not to say the movie isn’t powerful – only that Marsh is unfashionably interested in aftershock, rather than explosion.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis