Shadow Dancer, directed by James Marsh from Tom Bradby’s screenplay of his own novel, concerns an MI5 mole in Belfast in 1993. Peace was a subject tentatively being broached. An anticipatory time, if I recall.
I myself was ten at the time. Growing up in the late eighties and nineties, talk of ‘the troubles’ was always mysterious and cryptic, as though there was a secret history being written. It wasn’t acknowledged at school whatsoever, let alone explained. Similarly at home it was a taboo topic liable to get my father riled up if broached. And so I lived in uneasy denial that there were any ‘troubles’, disregarding the news stories that may as well have been spoken in code anyway, the latest instalments in an ongoing drama whose origins I wasn’t privy to.
Fortunately, the film world hasn’t remained quite so tight-lipped or clueless, and slowly it seems, the topic is becoming rife for discussing dramatically. A notable standout of British cinema in recent years was Steve McQueen’s searing Hunger. And whilst Shadow Dancer doesn’t burn its way onto the retina in quite such an unforgettable way, it does command your attention and respect.
Notable for involving Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson, two names usually associated with larger scale productions, the film actually belongs to Andrea Riseborough, who plays Colette. Following a brief but tense and effective sliver of back story from 1973, we meet Colette as an adult, fumbling an IRA bomb scare in a bravura sequence that is all the more thrilling for its patience and quietude. Colette, it appears, keeps terrorism in the family, and MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen) places her between a rock and a hard place, sending her back to Belfast to spy on those closest to her.
This may sound like the stuff of routine midweek 9PM one-hour TV thrillers, but Marsh’s film ably earns its feature presentation. There is a thoughtfulness to proceedings, grounded by Riseborough’s utterly convincing performance. She makes Colette completely real without any particular showboating, carrying much of the film. She earns our sympathies, yet we know we ought not to trust her. It is easily one of the performances of the year. Owen, as Mac, also impresses, showing admirable restraint from some of the usual ticks that can sometimes sully his roles. This is probably the best I’ve seen him since Gosford Park.
Shadow Dancer is a small UK/Ireland independent with a lot of backing from the likes of the BBC, the National Lottery and a number of smaller production companies. As such, this is a modest scale, quiet piece of work. But pigeonholing it as a muted bleak little non-drama would do the film a great disservice. By building a down-to-earth backdrop for the characters, all expertly played, Marsh has built an effective, tense thriller. Colette’s nerves are slowly shredded as doubt and suspicion spreads throughout those closest to her. Meanwhile, Mac must fight his own attachment to her as he uproots secrets in his own organisation.
It all sounds a little too cliché for comfort – especially Mac’s devotion to his ward – but it genuinely doesn’t play that way. Instead Shadow Dancer successfully evokes the kind of compelling ‘realism’ that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy floundered with this time last year. Where Alfredson’s film tested patience as it earnestly tried to demystify the spy genre, Marsh’s movie firmly holds court, its 100 minute runtime clipping by as the unease builds. I genuinely didn’t know how Shadow Dancer was going to pan out, and the film’s final turns provoked both surprise and discussion as the credits began to crawl.
Marsh’s film is at its best when the threat of violence is merely implied. The opening sequence in ’73 bristles with unease as the audience waits for something bad to happen. Tension expertly ratcheted up by the simple whistling of a kettle. Whilst later in the film the unrolling of a plastic sheet is all a scene needs to shimmer with dreaded anticipation. When violence does occur, it is brief and expertly out of left field, sending the film off down new avenues, keeping the audience on the back foot.
Marsh also lifts a visual cue from the great Don’t Look Now. Colette is frequently seen sporting a bright red raincoat. Whether evoking Nicolas Roeg’s seminal 70s chiller was intentional is hard to guess, but by doing so Marsh cloaks the character in peril by association. If this cinematic reference is deliberate, it’s an effectively played one, smartly accomplished, not to mention paid off.
But let’s not go overboard here. Shadow Dancer isn’t likely to change anybody’s life. And whilst every element is presented with credibility and expertise (Rob Hardy’s cinematography throws up some interesting and plaintive compositions, Dickon Hinchliffe’s music is light but evocative) the movie rarely attempts the kind of soaring clout to really stick in the mind as a towering achievement.
Nevertheless it is a cut above the usual fare, a successful and gripping thriller that is well worth investing in, and further evidence that our recent history is a verdant ground for intelligent filmmaking without easy answers. Recommended if you can catch it.