sun 21/07/2024

Shadow Dancer | reviews, news & interviews

Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer

James Marsh's IRA-themed thriller is muted, merciless - and brilliant

Man on (metaphorical) wire: MI5 officer Clive Owen keeps tabs on the Troubles

There's not exactly an excess of colour in Shadow Dancer, the IRA-themed thriller that unfolds amid a bleached-out landscape of browns and greys, windswept waterfronts and drab, unwelcoming enclosures.

But amid the drear, the director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has fashioned the most psychologically intricate and exciting film of the year so far and the first in a long time to restore the violent bequest of the Troubles to the cinematic primacy we associate with the likes of Cal or The Crying Game. Made all the more urgent by its gift for understatement, the movie is almost unbearably tense. 

Owen and RiseboroughPart of the appeal comes from two leads, Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen (pictured right), whom one could imagine having a high old celluloid time in some contrastingly fetching romcom, or the like. Instead, the two circle one another intently yet warily, coming together for moments of complicity and possibly something more yet pulling away as required by the exigencies of a climate in which bloodshed conquers all. The result melds the personal and the political into one encompassingly grievous whole, with the invaluable Brid Brennan on hand in a supporting role to lift proceedings very nearly to the level of Greek tragedy

Owen plays Mac, a truculent MI5 operative who sets about making an informer out of  Riseborough as a young Belfast mum, Colette McVeigh, a violence-scarred child first encountered in adulthood delivering what appears to be a bomb on to a London tube ca.1993. (Her baby brother, we see at the very start, was shot dead 20 years earlier in the sectarian crossfire while on a routine visit to the corner store that Colette's father had in fact asked his daughter to make.)

Riseborough ColetteNow grown, that grievous day from her past seared on the memory, Colette is the lone sister in a family of Republican hard-liners. Domhnall Gleeson and Aidan Gillen bring flinty, fierce authority to the parts of those other brothers busily asserting their seniority within the IRA, while Brennan movingly underplays the wild-eyed matriarch who has seen it all but is powerless to arrest the cycle of carnage that risks catching even so baleful a figure of compassion in its grip.

What comes first: allegiance to family or to the cause, Colette's love for her own traumatised son or filial dictates virtually demanding that someone or other will not make it through to morning? Mac's own challenge is to try to gain access and information while rescuing Colette from a fate that seems preordained. (Gillian Anderson is in fine, steely form as Mac's boss.) And if Mac and Colette's relationship evolves in the process, that's as it must be, too, even if one isn't immediately sure whether the pair represent lovers waiting to happen or the father/daughter scenario that Colette, in particular, has needed her entire life.  


Enacting a cat-and-mouse scenario of ever-increasing stakes, the two leads work well separately and together, Mac's private life irrelevant to the singular focus of screenwriter Tom Bradby's tale. (The source for the film is journalist Bradby's 2001 novel of the same name.) Instead, we come to understand Colette from all perspectives, Riseborough calbrating the pressures attendant upon the various people, and parties, that stake undue claim on her emotions - and time.

The narrative leads its principals into a climactic face-off that, were this the theatre, would have the audience on its feet. (In fact, the duo would be ideal casting should anyone decide to revive the blistering David Harrower two-hander, Blackbird.) At the press screening I attended, the cinephiles in the room did the next best thing: they stayed pinned to their seats as the final credits rolled. 

Watch the trailer for Shadow Dancer

Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough circle one another intently yet warily, coming together for moments of complicity and possibly something more


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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