Better luck with Irish

Andrea Riseborough gives a a multilevel performance as Colette in <i>Shadow Dancer</i>.
Andrea Riseborough gives a a multilevel performance as Colette in Shadow Dancer.

JAMES Marsh is understandably pleased he's been able to make his espionage thriller, Shadow Dancer. In 2005 he directed The King, a religious drama starring William Hurt and Gael Garcia Bernal, and it was not well received.

''People hated it,'' says the English filmmaker, who had to return to documentary-making when work subsequently dried up.

Marsh rebounded with Man on Wire in 2008, which won an Oscar for best feature documentary, and the equally acclaimed Project Nim. With his stock renewed, he put together Shadow Dancer. It's the story of a young woman, Colette (Andrea Riseborough), who, because of a British intelligence officer (Clive Owen), is forced to choose between betraying fellow IRA members, including her brothers, or going to jail and losing her son.

''It's an uncomfortable and quite gripping thriller because the spying takes place within a family setting,'' Marsh says. ''This is about the ties of blood and how they can be tested and pulled apart and inverted. Film is such a great medium for deception because it's visual.''

Marsh and writer Tom Bradby, who covered Northern Ireland's sectarian violence as a TV reporter, have removed the politics from the story and focused on the personal betrayal. The early-1990s setting offers a pre-digital intimacy that recalls Tomas Alfredson's labyrinthine adaption of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

''It's all about what we know and the characters know, and the discrepancies between [these],'' Marsh says. ''We respect the audience's intelligence, but we don't lay things out too simply because life isn't like that.''

The vagaries of independent filmmaking meant Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall almost played Mac and Colette. A delayed start made them unavailable and Owen, who had been unavailable, became available and joined Riseborough, who gives a fine performance that operates on different levels not resolved until the end.

If Shadow Dancer has been far more successful than The King, it doesn't mean they are opposites. Both concern interlopers bringing dangerous change into a home. ''Project Nim was also about a very strange family, one with the chimpanzee as the interloper,'' Marsh says. ''There are probably psychological reasons why I'm interested in that, but I'm not going to go to a therapist to find them out.''

Shadow Dancer is now screening.

This story Better luck with Irish first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.