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Sundance 2012: An Irish spin on 'Tinker Tailor'

January 25, 2012 |  9:32 pm

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" showed us that there's room in the modern world for a slow-burn spy movie, and one set in period to boot.

On Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival, the director James Marsh (most acclaimed for his 2008 documentary "Man on Wire") tested the theory when he premiered "Shadow Dancer," his new movie about cerebral intelligence agents operating during a charged period in Northern Island.

Set five years before 1998’s historic Good Friday Agreement, the film centers on an MI5 agent (Clive Owen) who recruits a young Northern Irish woman (Andrea Riseborough) to spy on her own activist IRA family, and the crosses and double-crosses that ensue as attacks are carried out.

But more conspicuous than the plot is the mood: the film is restrained in a way that mirrors "Tinker Tailor" (and can at times make even that movie seem like "The Bourne Identity").  There’s an occasional burst of violence, but characters move slowly, often under gray skies, and there's a hushed feeling about the whole enterprise. The second scene of the film, about an attempted bombing in a London subway station, unfolds for five minutes without anyone speaking a word.

Marsh, who has toggled between documentaries and features--the Oscar winner's two most recent films were the primate-research documentary "Project Nim" and a crime feature in Britain's "Red Riding" trilogy--said he thought the low pitch worked to his advantage.  "I wanted the film to gather weight as it went along," Marsh told 24 Frames at a reception for the film, which is based on a novel by the thriller author Tom Bradby.

Marsh smiled a little at the "Tinker Tailor" comparison" but noted wryly that the Gary Oldman film cost a lot more to make than his low-budget independent. Still, the period details, and the brown and gray tones that Tomas Alfredson used in painting “Tinker Tailor,” are very much on the palette here.

No one’s yet bought the movie, which is hunting for distribution at the festival. The nearly $20 million in box office for “Tinker Tailor” may suggest a sizable audience, though John Le Carre’s name goes a lot further than Bradby’s.

More than “Tinker Tailor,” this movie weaves a lot of politics into its fabric—there’s a showdown between British police and IRA members at the funeral of an IRA member, for instance—but Marsh, who like Riseborough is English, said at a post-screening Q&A session that he was concerned primarily with a “universal human politics.”

Still, Riseborough added that the desperate situation of the Northern Irish shouldn’t be overlooked. “They were so angry,” she said. There was “pain and unemployment. It's almost too much for words.”


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--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Andrea Riseborough in "Shadow Dancer." Credit: Sundance Film Festival