In the wake of exceptional television series like The Americans and Homeland, Shadow Dancer suffers because the territory is so familiar. It’s a thriller with the backdrop of a bitter war, and the conflict surrounds a woman who’s forced to spy on her countrymen. Director James Marsh, who won an Academy Award for the documentary Man on Wire, offers a slow-burn thriller where the tension comes from a set of eyes, not a loaded gun. Still, there are better examples of this genre out there, and fans of the aforementioned shows will wonder why this feature is worth their money when television already offers richer entertainment.
It’s Belfast in the early seventies, and a father tells his teenage girl to buy him a pack of cigarettes. She relegates the duty to her little brother, and shortly after he steps outside, he’s shot in the crossfire between the IRA and the British Army. The event radicalizes the girl: twenty years later, Collette (Andrea Riseborough) attempts to bomb the tube in London, but she’s stopped by MI5. Her handler Mac (Clive Owen) gives her a stark choice: spy on her family, all IRA members, or spend a lifetime in jail.
Collette agrees, and soon she has weekly meetings with Mac along a parking lot by the bay. Mac can barely contain her emotions – she’s justifiably paranoid that her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) will kill her – and things aren’t going well on his end, either. The MI5 agent in charge (Gillian Anderson) is hiding crucial details from Mac, and soon it’s clear that he cannot guarantee her safety.
As with Man on Wire, Marsh is an economical director. He does not lay out the details of a chase scene or shoot-out, and instead offers just enough so that we can sense the danger. In the sequence where Collette gets caught, she merely drops a bag and walks speedily through abandoned tunnels. She’s only given a brief moment where she sobs in light of her situation. This kind of storytelling is good for atmosphere and macabre little details: after an interrogation from her IRA boss goes well, Collette sees that they were prepared to execute her over sheets of plastic.
But Marsh’s minimalism also means there’s a lack of incident. Not a lot happens in Shadow Dancer, aside from stern glances and the occasional serious conversation, so Marsh must rely on his actors for the heavy lifting. Owen’s the most recognizable face here, and his taciturn, workmanlike competence is perfect for this type of character. Still, this is Riseborough’s movie, and she sells Collette’s turmoil through quivering eyes and a constant look of forlorn fear. Marsh’s costume designer supplies with a red coat that is striking against the drab greens and grays of Northern Ireland. Even when Collete is at her most hopeless, she looks like a femme fatale straight out of noir.
Shadow Dancer reveals its hand a little too early. The conflict in Northern Ireland always cut deeper than other modern civil war because of how it involved generations of families, so the repercussions were always personal. The resolution is full of darkly dramatic irony, but Marsh offers enough clues so that the big moment is inevitable, not shocking. At just under one hundred minutes, Shadow Dancer is a breezy thriller about how blood always runs deepest, even when the fight is over country. Without the appropriate time to develop the deep loyalties in its characters, this thriller is too slight for its climax.