I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect with SHADOW DANCER, but the main thing that I did know about it was that was a critically acclaimed spy film that dealt with the IRA (Irish Republican Party). I must be honest that I know very little about the IRA itself other than what I have seen in other films (which probably doesn’t help, so I’ll need explore more about it at some point). But despite my little knowledge of the subject, I was still intrigued in checking it out since I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. Well, I can definitely say is that this film does live up to its praise.
Set in Belfast, Ireland during the early 1990’s, the film follows a young Irish single mother by the name Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) who becomes a member of IRA, along with the rest of her family, after the accidental death of her young brother by English soldiers when she was a child. One day she gets captured by MI5 after a bomb that she left at a train station fails to explode. Colette is taken to an undisclosed location where she meets a MI5 agent who simply goes by the name of Mac (Clive Owen). However instead of sending her to jail, he gives Colette an ultimatum: become an informant for MI5 and spy on the activities of her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), who are high-ranking members of the IRA, or risk going to prison and never seeing her son ever again. After seriously thinking about it, Colette decides to work for Mac and MI5. However when she gets back to her family home in Belfast, she soon discovers how dangerous working as a spy can be.
After reading the synopsis you can definitely see why this film peaked my interest. Director James Marsh (the Oscar-winning director behind the documentaries MAN ON WIRE and PROJECT NIM) has, along with screenwriter Tom Bradby (who adapted it from his own novel), crafted a terrific spy film that I found to be complex, engrossing and compelling from beginning to end. SHADOW DANCER is a spy film that more in the tone of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY than James Bond 007. What I think makes this film work is that is focuses its attention on both its characters and story, Marsh and Bradby successfully hook us into the world of the story from the very first frame and keep us invested in it right up until the very end. Marsh does a great job with his direction, every scene is directed with both skill and intensity. He brings an effective reality to it that feels authentic to the time and place where this film is set (it’s no surprise since he is from a documentary background) and as well as the paranoia that one would face when working as a spy. Bradby’s script is extremely well written, he brings a lot of interesting elements, depth and suspense to his screenplay. Plus he does a great job with bringing a lot of interesting layers to the characters, which is good because it gives the cast some good roles to chew on.
The entire all give really strong performances but the stand-out being Andrea Riseborough, who was wonderful as “Colette”. She gets us emotionally invested into the struggles that her character is facing during the course of the film. It’s a truly great performance from her. Clive Owen gives a really good and low-key turn as “Mac”. While I’ll admit that his character isn’t all that interesting on paper but luckily Owen manages to bring a bit more to the role. Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson both give strong turns as Colette’s brothers “Gerry” and “Connor”. Also two other performances that stood out for me from the supporting cast were Brid Brennan as Colette’s “Mother” (she did a good with her role) and David Wilmot who gave a really chilling performance as “Kevin”, one of Colette’s fellow IRA members who becomes suspicious of her when she comes back from her mission. The cinematography is beautifully done (I love the very saturated and muted look that DP Rob Hardy brought to the film), the production/costume felt real and authentic (especially the scenes at Mac’s MI5 headquarters, which looked like an actual real office at that time), the score was really good and the last act was superbly done and unforgettable.
On the negative side of things, there were a few things about the film that I thought didn’t really work. I felt that the subplot that involved Mac at MI5 wasn’t really all that interesting when compared to Colette’s story (although it does start to take an interesting turn towards the end). Also I felt that during those scenes Gillian Anderson, who is fine in the film, was very underused as Mac’s boss “Kate Fletcher”. Another aspect of the film I didn’t like was the romance that was developing between both “Colette” and “Mac”, it felt rather rushed and unneeded. I understand what the filmmakers where trying to do with it and if they gave it more time to develop, it probably would’ve worked much better than it did. Also the pacing can be a bit of a slow burn. While that never really bothered me at all but I can understand that it might be for other people.
Overall SHADOW DANCER was surprisingly great and engaging spy drama/thriller that I really enjoyed a lot. However if you are going in expecting an action packed James Bond type of film, you will end up being disappointed. But if you like a good deliberately paced spy film that relies on both character and plot, than this one is definitely worth checking out for sure.
– Bede Jermyn