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‘Shadow Dancer’ plays a deadly game of intrigue

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Collette Andrea Riseborough

Mac Clive Owen

Connor Domhnall Gleeson

Gerry Aiden Gillen

Kate Gillian Anderson

Ma Brid Brennan

Magnolia Pictures presents a film directed by James Marsh. Written by Tom Bradby. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for language and some violent content). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.

Updated: July 15, 2013 3:30PM

The uncompromising violence and bloody betrayals that affect several generations of one family are at the core of “Shadow Dancer,” a taut, ominous political thriller set in Northern Ireland during the long years of “The Troubles,” when stalwarts of the Irish Republican Army fought British soldiers in the streets of Belfast.

Director James Marsh, who made the wonderful 2008 documentary “Man on Wire,” handles the subject matter with a subtle touch. This is not an in-your-face thriller but rather a measured film ripe with suspense that never lets up. The script is by British journalist Tom Bradby, who adapted his 1998 novel. He was a correspondent in Northern Ireland during the peace process and has a keen grasp of the ill winds that buffeted the initiative.

Andrea Riseborough, a wonderfully understated actress, stars as Collette McVeigh, a member of a pro-IRA family. The opening scene flashes back to the day that initiated her into the cause. A 12-year-old Collette persuades her younger brother to run an errand for her, during which he is caught in the crossfire of British and IRA bullets and dies. Guilt follows her into adulthood and fuels her ambivalent dedication to the cause.

Two decades later, in 1993, we follow Collette as she is captured while planting a bomb in the London Underground. A single mother, she is staring at a 25-year prison sentence for her act of terrorism, but an MI5 agent named Mac (Clive Owen) offers her an alternative scenario: Return to Belfast and inform on her brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), both IRA radicals.

Collette is not blatantly violent or vengeful, but rather duty-bound to the family cause. Planting bombs and plotting killings have become the McVeigh family trade. Mac senses this and plays to her weakness: What will happen to her young son if she goes to jail?

After some resistance, Collette agrees to the bargain; her instinct is to be there for her son. There are many psychological mind games here. How long will she be able to act as a mole without her brothers and their violent cohorts finding out? And how long will Mac be able to keep Collette safe when his boss (Gillian Anderson) isn’t too concerned about his informant’s future?

There is nothing life-affirming about Collette’s existence in Belfast during this troubled time. The film’s color palette is dull greens, grays and browns. The only bright color on this landscape is the red raincoat that Collette wears when she steps out. It could represent blood, or it could represent the target she could become. It emphasizes the blatant sense of dread that permeates the entire film.

Clive Owen is left with nothing much to do in many scenes, but in others he perfectly portrays the desperate frustration of a man trying to keep an informant alive, despite the odds against him.

After several quietly shocking scenes, the spy thriller ends on an unexpected note. Collette is alive but she is not saved. As she stares off into space, there are signals that she will live a life of fear and regret, despite the balm of peace on the horizon.

Mary Houlihan is a locally based free-lance writer and reviewer.

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