Colette McVeigh is just a selfish but innocent child when her brother is brought back to her family’s house, dead from IRA crossfire. Flash-forward to 1993 and Colette (Andrea Riseborough) nervously moves around the London underground, abruptly abandoning her bag on some steps and hot-footing it out of a dingy industrial back door. But MI5 are onto her, and Mac (Clive Owen) is soon presenting her with a dangerous choice: imprisonment across the sea away from her young son, or return to Belfast as an informant on her family and friends.
Director James Marsh has gathered considerable acclaim in the past few years, thanks to his nimble, polished documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim. Shadow Dancer may be a narrative film, but Marsh carries over the steady, measured approach to filmmaking from his documentary success. The reserved nature of the characters here puts the film at risk of being glacially remote, but from the very beginning, there’s a skittish edge to proceedings – a steady camera capturing a nervous, elongated tension. There’s more enthrallment for the audience in the dread of what might happen than in what actually unfolds.
If that makes Shadow Dancer sound perpetually unsatisfying, that wouldn’t be an unfair accusation. The dynamics here are familiarly generic and Tom Bradby’s script – adapted from his own novel – struggles to give them fresh angles. The scenes in the MI5 offices, particularly Mac’s interactions with his boss (a wasted Gillian Anderson), have absolutely no energy to them, and despite Owen’s tenacious empathy, Mac never feels like a fully-formed character. The jeopardy of the film’s climax is played as grim inevitability rather than adrenalized excitement. Perhaps intentionally, the Belfast setting seems to change very little between the 1970s and 1993, with the drained, bare interiors giving a stolid air to much of the narrative.
Luckily, Riseborough has finally been given a character to really let her impeccable craft shine unimpeded. Having recently been stuck with flat female figures like Rose in Brighton Rock and Wallis Simpson in W.E., Colette finally gives Riseborough a character already equipped with moral shading and internal tensions. Colette’s tempestuous character makes itself as apparent in the costuming (a bright red coat is conspicuous amongst the grey Belfast setting) as it does in Riseborough’s clenched tempestuousness, but the power the film has comes from the actress’ quiet energy.
Ultimately, Shadow Dancer lives up to its name – the excitement and pleasure of the film lies where you might not expect, carefully hopping around in the background. It’s a film that doesn’t promise fun and doesn’t require much thought – it depicts a recent past not quite forgotten, but one that casts long shadows that have only recently been escaped from. There’s no sheen to this dour piece of filmmaking, but the best of the dancing does make it shine.