Andrea Riseborough steals the show in this stylish and ruthlessly efficient spy thriller from the director of Man on Wire, James Marsh.
It’s clear that Andrea Riseborough is one of Britain’s most remarkable young actors. Though – like Colin Farrell before her – she’s been cursed by a throng of horrendously subpar collaborators.
As a rule, she delivers very good performances that do much of the heavy lifting in very bad films. Brighton Rock? No ta. Made in Dagenham? We’ll pass, thanks. Never Let Me Go? Sigh... W.E.? Taxi... to the abattoir!
Thankfully, all trends exist to be bucked, and so it is with Shadow Dancer, an ambiguous, multi-layered mélange of deception, bureaucracy, subterfuge and personal one- upmanship set against The Troubles in Ireland during the early '90s. Riseborough stars as Colette McVeigh, our ethically conflicted and pallidly glamorous heroine.
She’s a terrorist- by-proxy who apprehensively places bombs in various public hotspots at the behest of her firebrand siblings. The flame of political dissent flickers within her, mainly due to the fact that her younger brother was an innocent victim of the street-level conflict. Her constant proximity to extreme violence, however, is far from ideal.
Political journalist and author Tom Bradby has adapted Shadow Dancer for the screen from his own 1998 potboiler. Although less narratively complex than Tomas Alfredson’s skilfully abridged take on John le Carré’s 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', this film is just as proficient at imbuing its characters with fine, secretive shades and presenting the process of life-or- death decision-making as a state of constant, dangerous flux.
It’s a story in which characters constantly attempt to anticipate the outcome of their actions, without ever daring to think what horrors the eventual end game may bring.
When captured following a bungled mission in London, Colette is given a Sophie’s Choice: she can work with Scotland Yard and inform on her family in order to save herself and her young son; or she can string them along and furtively pursue her prolonged anti-English blitzkrieg.
Clive Owen’s committed detective, Mac, is convinced she’ll do the right thing, even while his higher-ups employ more underhand, short-order tactics in their desperate scrabble for results. He knows she’s in an extremely dangerous spot, surrounded by goons and enforcers who wouldn’t think twice before aerating her brain with a bullet if they harboured even the mildest inkling that she was selling their cause down the river.
Director James Marsh is known primarily for his documentary work (Wisconsin Death Trip, Man on Wire, Project Nim), even if he dabbled in fiction filmmaking with 2005’s middling oddball thriller, The King. Though his populist and thought-provoking non-fiction work occasionally suffers from didacticism and melodrama, he has a track record as a master storyteller, and with Shadow Dancer he appears at last to have struck a satisfying balance between surprising, challenging plot reveals and genuine subtlety of purpose.
By the time all the characters are introduced, every line, every gesture, every power play is loaded with uncertainty. It never quite attains Miller’s Crossing-level narrative sleight-of-hands, but there are enough moments of moral haziness to keep you hooked. Most impressively, a stolen kiss that occurs between Colette and Mac late in the proceedings becomes the potentially duplicitous emotional affirmation that tilts the entire film on its side. In a very good way.
When Marsh’s film screened at the Berlin Film Festival early in 2012, some were quick to dismiss it as middlebrow genre fare. And, frankly, there isn’t much in Shadow Dancer that doesn’t already feel familiar, from the fuggy, grey-brown depiction of the Belfast suburbs as seen in the early segments of Steve McQueen’s Hunger, to the in-the-moment hand-held camerawork care-of Rob Hardy, who collaborated with Marsh in 2009 on his segment of the Red Riding trilogy. And though stating it has become a cliché, there are even echoes of
TV’s The Wire, in that you’re never sure whether you should be rooting for the cops or the crims. But Shadow Dancer does the easy things right, and it makes you appreciate how rare that is in politically-infused genre thrillers. The various action set pieces are immaculate, from the opening long-take of Colette boarding the Tube and psychologically priming herself to do something awful, to the amazing hoax assassination that Colette is roped into at the eleventh hour.
Hitchcock appears to be one of Marsh’s key influences, with some moments recalling his early chase-action movies like Saboteur or The 39 Steps, while the central doomed love story is straight out of Notorious.
Though it depicts the violent political machinations of a specific time and place, Shadow Dancer also speaks to the push and pull between individual and state, family and concerned outsiders, and achieving lasting change through peace and violence.
It’s Clive Owen’s best film in a long, long time, and there are some splendid supporting turns from safe-hands character actors like Aidan Gillen and Gillian Anderson. It is Riseborough, however, who steals the show. Finally she’s part of a creative enterprise that’s entirely worthy of her immense talents. It’s about time.
James Marsh is fast turning into one of Britain’s most interesting and diverse directors.
Everyone involved brings their A-game, especially Andrea Riseborough.
This is Rolls-Royce genre entertainment. Hard-hitting, thought-provoking, tense, memorable.