Release Date: 24th August, 2012
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson
Shadow Dancer is a spy-thriller set in Belfast during the 1990s, preceding the IRA cease-fire agreement with Britain. It is a methodically-paced, brooding film which foregrounds dialogue exchanges, family relationships, micro and macro-level politics rather than action sequences, car chases and explosions. Renowned documentarian James Marsh directs the film which stars Andrea Riseborough as Colette McVeigh, an IRA radical who turns MI5 informant in order to preserve her son’s safety during unstable times.
The opening 15 minutes of Shadow Dancer is nothing short of excellent. Initially flashing back to 1973, the film horrifically showcases the volatile environment which Colette inhabited as a child before cutting to her in London during the 1990s, subtly suspicious, bag-in-hand and traversing busy train lines. There is a great Hitchcock-style suspense built up as the camera hovers the frame over the bag for a fraction of a second longer than necessary in order to plant the seed of doubt. It works effectively, and you can’t help but keep your eyes on her as she briskly navigates while carefully scanning her surroundings. Her actions lead her into an interrogation with Mac (Clive Owen) who offers an ultimatum — protection for Colette and her son in return for information regarding upcoming IRA activities, or a life in prison.
While Riseborough’s performance holds up well throughout, the film sadly loses almost all of the intrigue and suspense that it opens with immediately following the opening. As Shadow Dancer enters its second act we are introduced to a network of IRA activists close to Colette’s family who, while performed well enough by the actors, are not fleshed out in any discernibly interesting way. It’s hard to relate to the drama when the characters don’t feel as though they have earned their place on-screen. Even Kevin Mulville — who quickly becomes the closest thing to an antagonist the film has — is nothing short of a caricature.
Much of the character exposition and development is predicated on one person’s suspicion of another — which is an interesting premise in itself — but it is a behaviour which is passed around from character to character with such reckless abandon that it’s hard not to gradually lose interest. There are occasional scenes where the opening tension resurfaces (such as an attempted assassination in a Belfast suburb), but the slow pace in between often becomes drawn out to the point of drudgery.
By contrast, the film’s aesthetic is consistently interesting. Marsh’s scenes are full of detail, and there is good, significant use of colour throughout, with Colette’s piercing blue and red coats cutting through the beige, grey palette. Dickon Hinchliffe’s soundtrack is understated and fits appropriately with the near-stasis, but these factors don’t work well enough in themselves to elevate the film back towards the heights the opening act reached.
Despite being just over an hour and a half long, Shadow Dancer feels longer. While the performances and formal elements are superb, the film may have been better served at the hand of a more vicious editor, or perhaps as an hour-long BBC drama. There is a great story to be told in Shadow Dancer, but as it stands the film feels too bogged down in all the wrong details to fully recommend.