Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Shadow Dancer is a finely crafted, intelligently acted political thriller/drama with a complexity, subtlety, and depth that immediately recalls the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
--to this film's detriment, as it is not as compelling a picture. The comparison seems unfair (the films were certainly in production at around the same time), but it's there nonetheless; it's the elephant in the screening room. Those reservations aside, Shadow Dancer is well worth investigating--it's a modest but absorbing picture, and features a captivating performance by Clive Owen.
He plays Mac, an MI5 officer who meets Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) across an interrogation table. She's just been brought in following an aborted bombing in the London tube. In the film's Belfast-set prologue, we get a pretty good idea of her motives: her youngest brother is murdered in the streets. McVeigh and her two surviving brothers are now IRA operatives. Mac is less interested in arresting Colette than he is in finding out what she has to offer. He proposes a deal to the single mother, offering her the chance to stay free if she becomes an informant. It's not much of a choice, and one she must wrestle with, at great personal risk.
The director is James Marsh, who not only helmed the terrific documentaries Man On Wire and Project Nim, but the second (and best) of the Red Riding films. He's working in a deliberately muted key here--Owen seldom raises his voice (he doesn't have to), and the rest of the cast follows suit. Marsh (working from Tom Bradby's adaptation of his own novel) keeps creeping in closer to the action, working up a palpable sense of whispered tension and understated suspense. Both are in place from the prologue on; the boy is sent out on a simple errand (seldom an even worth dramatizing), and Marsh stays with young Colette, piddling around their house and doing busy work--he knows that we know what's coming, and draws it out agonizingly.
If my commentary is light, it's primarily because the unfolding of the complex narrative requires so much of the viewer's attention. Like Tinker Tailor, Shadow Dancer may very well require a second viewing for the filmgoer to not only fully comprehend the events onscreen, but to fully appreciate its inside-voices storytelling style. It doesn't all play; the romantic angle comes off as awkward and tacked-on, and Gillian Anderson's character feels, to put it politely, underdeveloped. These complaints are fairly minor, though. Marsh's rhythms take some getting used to, but his direction is concise, forceful even, and his actors turn in performances both controlled and urgent--Owen is a marvel, and Riseborough carries her quiet desperation across her fine features with resigned grace. Marsh is a ruthlessly intelligent filmmaker, and while Shadow Dancer doesn't quite reach the heights of his nonfiction work, it's still a fine piece of cinematic craftsmanship.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.