2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gave the spy drama a much more realistic edge. Gone were car chases, dramatic shoot outs and sexy time with impossibly attractive femme fatales, and in came lengthy conversation, deep intertwining plot and drabness by the bucketload. Shadow Dancer very much continues in that vein, with action kept to a minimum, an intriguing, twisting plot, and another healthy dose of drabness.
Adapted from the Tom Bradby novel, Shadow Dancer is set primarily in early 1990s Belfast and centres around Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) who is caught leaving a bomb on a London Underground train. In exchange for not rotting in a jail cell, she is enlisted by MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen) to report on the goings-on of her die-hard IRA family. It’s the beginning of the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland, with Prime Minister John Major announcing significant steps forward in the peace process, but there remains ardent IRA members and supporters and we get to see little evidence of the winds of change, except for Colette.
A prior knowledge of events in Northern Ireland wouldn’t go amiss when approaching the film, but even those with a rudimentary understanding of the conflict should find enough to get by on. The film does very well to not take sides, although some may feel it is shying away from more important subjects that aren’t addressed. However, that’s not what the it is about; it’s not designed to be an in-depth examination of the troubles at that time, more a snaphot of what life was like with added plot.
This is very much a character driven story rather than plot driven; the details almost become incidental to how the characters’ stories are played out, and the entire ensemble, particularly the Irish-based characters pull it off superbly. Riseborough is excellent as the vulnerable yet strong-willed Collette, whilst David Wilmot is equally good as the menacing Kevin, a threat to Colette’s welfare from within her own. Whilst Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson are also entertaining enough in their MI5 roles, this section of the plot is less engaging, which is unfortunate as it actually has a fundamental effect on the overall story. It’s this reason that, come the climax, some of the punches don’t hit home perhaps as hard as they should.
It is arguably the film’s first act that is its strength, with director James Marsh (making a rare and successful foray into fiction following Man on Wire and Project Nim), handling the material with aplomb, ramping up the the tension and intrigue through the brief flashback to Collette’s childhood, her failed bombing attempt and subsequent arrest/interrogation. For every occasional dip in form there are plenty of highs, a standoff with the RUC at a funeral being just one, and each occasional flash of action provides a perfect change of pace.
The look of the film, in some way reflecting its subject matter, is rather bleak, but cutting through the film’s aesthetic drabness like Colette’s red coat is an engaging story, elevated to an even higher standard by the performances of Riseborough and her colleagues. Shadow Dancer will likely not get much of a runtime at cinemas and could well drift into obscurity, but it deserves attention and it would be a shame if such a well made and acted film passed by the wayside.
Words: Chris Thomson