I also reviewed Shadow Dancer as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival for Empire Magazine Online, which you can read here.
Belfast, 1993. Twenty years after her brother was killed in the crossfire of sectarian violence, Colette McVeigh (Riseborough) has become a single-mother and radical member of an IRA cell ran by her brothers (Gillen, Gleeson). Caught leaving a bomb in London’s underground, however, she’s given a choice by MI5 agent Mac (Owen) – return to Belfast and become an undercover informant or go to prison and never see her son again. Opting for the former, Colette becomes a reluctant spy, while handler Mac senses that his superior (Anderson) may be using her for a different agenda…
While best known for his recent documentaries, the Oscar-winning Man On Wire and the Bafta-nominated Project Nim, filmmaker James Marsh’s return to fictional features is actually closer to his instalment of the Red Riding trilogy. An atmospheric period piece with an evocative sense of era – it’s all intoxicating interiors and muted colours – comparisons will also be made with last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, given the measured pacing and unglamourous, arthouse-flavoured depiction of domestic espionage. Unfortunately though, while Marsh’s adult and similarly serious-minded approach is to be applauded, the result isn’t nearly as compelling as either.
As a slow-burn thriller we need to have some heat, but frustratingly there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter. After opening with a flashback to Colette’s childhood, we’re presented with a ten-minute sequence which is long, unhurried and wordless – which sums up Shadow Dancer as a whole. Certainly, the pervasive atmosphere occasionally works (see the scene where a gun is passed through a funeral), but too often the pacing oversteps the mark from deliberate and suspenseful into sluggish territory, undermining the tension as opposed to enhancing it. No question, the low-key and relentlessly restrained approach is certainly refreshing, but the result is too cold and detached for us to respond to.
All that said, it’s still an intelligent picture which demands a second viewing. Like Marsh’s Red Riding 1980, Shadow Dancer is as much about mood, setting and atmosphere as anything else, while the IRA conflict is used more as backdrop for a story about conflicting loyalties than it is an excuse for violent bloodshed. There’s also a nice ambiguity about where Colette’s allegiances lie, which up-and-comer Andrea Riseborough – all chalk-white skin, red raincoat and flawless Irish accent – essays into a performance which should springboard her to the next level. Elsewhere, Clive Owen makes the most of another world-weary, Clive Owen-y role and the support is made up from some nice character actors (Aidan Gillen in particular). Gillian Anderson, while by no means bad, is somewhat distracting with a British accent though.
While comparable to both Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and his own Red Riding instalment, James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer isn’t nearly as compelling as either. The adult and serious-minded approach is to be applauded, but for a slow-burn thriller there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter.