There's something strangely out of kilter about the opening of Marsh's first drama feature. Following a highly predictable opening sequence, we see a young woman getting on a tube, supposedly in the early nineties. However, the tube carriage seems far too modern. Then she gets out of the train, having chosen not to detonate the bomb she was carrying. The station is on the Eastern side of the District Line, (It looks like Mile End) but when she emerges, having conveniently located an unknown exit, she's clearly not in East London. If I were not cognizant with the city, perhaps these details would not have bothered me. But given that I am, it seemed weird that such a prestigious film should have been so sloppy. Particularly as Marsh comes from the world of the doc, where there is nothing except for naturalism. These glitches, and the insipid nature of the plot, meant the whole film steps off on the wrong foot.
Subsequently it seemed to pick up, although, as another critic observed, one wonders why the Riseborough character is so wedded to her red, 'Don't Look Now' coat. The acting is strong and a sense of tension develops over the course of the film as we want the sympathetic mother to escape the cleft stick she's stuck in. The prominent grade lends the film a washed out, despairing look. (I suppose the red coat is supposed to make her stand out for cinematographic reasons, rather than dramatic ones). However, underpinning its eventual competence, which only just overcomes a run-of-the-mill, TV-esque script, is the question of why this film has been made, both on commercial and auteur grounds.
IMDB reveals that Marsh was born in '63. As a result he will have lived through that lost time when the IRA was The Enemy. It all seems so long ago now and the TV footage of Major has a quaint, nostalgic feel. So from a personal point of view, one imagines the filmmaker wanted to connect in some way with that period of his own life and that therein lay the appeal of the project. However, there's a difference between Marsh and Herzog, say, as a documentary filmmaker. Whereas the work of Herzog or, this year, Guzman, is inflected by their personalities, Marsh's work has a more detached feel. This works brilliantly when he unpicks a complex, unlikely story. But if Shadow Dancer is in some ways closer to home, (and if not, why is it being made?) then the lack of a vested interest on the part of the director becomes apparent. The film lacks a visceral connection with the world it depicts. Everything ticks over, but nothing grabs you. These characters (the script/ the world) are insufficiently distinctive to make mere observation of their actions all that intriguing. The film cries out for something unlikely, or Herzogian. The one slightly vacuous and under-developed twist, which might have helped to turn the story into a Coen Brothers movie, feels like a belated bid to take a radical dramatic direction, but it's all too little, too late. As for the commercial logic of making this movie, it seems sad that a filmmaker as clearly talented as Marsh has not been steered more adroitly towards a story that would have benefited his talents as well as allowing his skills to make more of a mark.