IT is not a range to be found on the Farrow & Ball paint chart, but there is a particular palette of grungy beiges and sickly greens that could go under the label of "vintage despair". To see them is to be transported back to a murky period of history, a place where the colours matched the mood of the day.
James Marsh splashed them around when he directed a segment of Red Riding, the television drama about the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, and he uses them again to brilliant effect in Shadow Dancer, a tight as a tourniquet thriller set in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s.
Two bleak but riveting dramas, both from a British director best known previously for Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit, the French daredevil who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Marsh clearly picked up a few tips along with that Academy Award.
Inevitably, comparisons will be made between Shadow Dancer, adapted from the novel by Tom Bradby, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another film awash with greens and beiges, and another drama set in troubled times. That flatters Shadow Dancer a touch too much. Where Tinker Tailor had a gordian knot of a plot, Shadow Dancer plays things much simpler. Tomas Alfredson's picture also came near to being note perfect; Shadow Dancer cannot boast as much.
Still, this is a clever, sharply observed thriller that shows Marsh is becoming as accomplished a director of fiction as he is an outstanding conveyor of facts. In Shadow Dancer he has found the perfect meeting point between the two.
The picture opens as it means to go on: with its hands around the throats of the audience. After a brief prologue, the opening scenes are played out in near silence as we see IRA footsoldier Colette McVeigh (played by Andrea Riseborough) attempt to carry out a grisly mission in London. Marsh edits the sequence as if working against the clock, keeping the action rattling along as though to the thriller born. On this day, McVeigh's world is due to collide with that of an MI5 agent, played by Clive Owen. He needs someone on the inside, and will put McVeigh, a single mother, inside prison if she does not co-operate. Feeling trapped whatever she does, McVeigh has to make a decision.
Marsh looks at the period with a gimlet eye. Here is the war in Northern Ireland, life during "The Troubles", in all its plain, everyday horror: communities acting as if they lived in a police state, police and army operating under a state of siege. Dread hangs over the place like smog.
Marsh does a remarkable job in keeping the tone even handed. He achieves this by starting with the bigger picture, the war between the state and the IRA, then bringing the drama in closer and closer until all we see are individuals. Reducing the conflict to a manageable size, but not in a glib way, means the audience is asked to care about people, not causes.
What strong female characters he has in Riseborough's Colette and her mother, played by the excellent Brid Brennan. The older woman looks careworn well beyond her years, while the younger is rapidly catching up with her. To these two, the film adds another in the shape of Gillian Anderson's MI5 boss. An ice maiden of the old school, the Anderson character comes closest to being a stereotype in a film that otherwise tries to confound expectations.
Having set up a simple enough tale, Marsh and his outstanding cast, led by a haunting Riseborough, a commanding Owen and the ever intriguing Aiden Gillen, could have carried on in a straightforward fashion, milking the tension for all it was worth.
Had this been an American serial drama of the Homeland variety, Marsh could have probably spun 15 episodes out of the story. Fortunately, Marsh and Bradby start to weave an ever more elaborate tale. Not all of it convinces, but there is more than enough here to keep the viewer gripped.
Marsh's great gift, as a documentary maker as much as a feature film director, lies in the way he humanises his subjects. Even when he is telling the story of a chimp born and raised in captivity, as in Project Nim, he is exposing the best and worst in humans.
He does the same here, at the same time as delivering a rollicking political thriller. As the story goes on, snippets of conversations and news reports (one delivered by ITV News's Bradby himself), remind us of how the ground began to shift under everyone's feet. This is history observed with such a fresh eye it feels like watching live television news.
Marsh the storyteller doesn't fall down on his dramatic duties. He may paint in the beiges and greens of the times, but this is a political thriller alive with colour.
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