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Shadow Dancer

2012 | 102 min | R | 2.39:1

Shadow Dancer


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Theatrical release date

 31 May, 2013
 24 August, 2012

Country of origin

 United Kingdom

Box office




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Screenshots from Shadow Dancer Blu-ray

Shadow Dancer Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, May 23, 2013

Most films concerning The Troubles take a vitriolic stance, using stark images of violence and fiery participants to paint a disturbing portrait of sacrifice and circular movements of tragedy. “Shadow Dancer” is no less impassioned, but takes a more suspenseful route, locking on the internal churn of responsibility and personal protection as national events and schemes of war carry on in the background. It’s a terrific picture, bolstered by powerful performances from Clive Owen and especially Andrea Riseborough, who carries the restless effort with a singular display of discomfort peeking out from behind a mask of duty, capturing a precise projection of doubt in the midst of destructive political certainty.

As a young girl in 1973, Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) witnessed the death of her brother at the hands of Belfast violence. In 1993, she’s grown into a tentative operative for the I.R.A., though her recent mission to bomb a London subway station is left unfulfilled when she decides not to trigger the device in her purse. Arrested, Collette is placed in the care of Mac (Clive Owen), a MI5 agent who urges his prisoner to become an informant, thus securing a future of freedom and safety for her young son. Cautiously agreeing to the deal, Collette returns home to an I.R.A. hive, while leader Kevin (David Wilmot) grows immediately suspicious of her loyalty when their first strike against the English enemy is thwarted by outside forces. Unsure of her position in the midst of such tension, Collette grows distrustful of both sides, watching Mac break his vow of non-violence, while Kevin tears into the organization, determined to find and kill the mole who’s disrupting important plans.

“Shadow Dancer” is directed by James Marsh, the man behind such documentaries as “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim,” while exploring his dramatic roots in pictures such as “Red Riding: 1980.” A gifted helmer with a clearly defined career manufacturing unease over hysteria, Marsh is the proper choice to take on the nuances of Tom Bradby’s novel, adapted for the screen by the author himself. “Shadow Dancer” isn’t pronounced in its managing of anxiety, electing to retain a low hum of agitation, an approach befitting a story where so much plays out in private, with each side of the dispute attempting to avoid revealing their end game while in the company of others. The intensity of the film emerges from personal reflection, finding Collette wary of trust, with Mac’s declarations of protection pushed on her, while unrest at home disturbs the situation further. It’s an impossible dilemma of forward movement that Marsh isolates with agreeable distance, never forcing the moment or asking his cast to externally tremble to communicate the squeeze of paranoia. Instead, “Shadow Dancer” observes, tracking Collette’s return to the family business to gather information and Mac’s strain to make sure she doesn’t get chewed up by a most ungrateful system.

The script builds a community of players involved with the two lead characters, including Mac’s boss Kate (Gillian Anderson), who’s more than ready to burn off Collette when she doesn’t see a future in her ability to acquire information. We also meet members of the informant’s family, with everyone involved in I.R.A. business despite clear distaste for one another. The screenplay invests primarily in minor moments of confrontation and deliberation, and Marsh follows suit with a spare filmmaking design, emphasizing reflection as the personalities digest their actions and consider their next move. It’s a stillness that aids “Shadow Dancer” greatly, absorbing the gloomy atmosphere as the plot thickens, comprehending the psychological toll and the extent of frustration as Collette begins to lose faith in Mac’s promises, indulging a slight romantic attraction between them to no avail.

While there’s a plot that develops an acceptable interest in suspense in the final act, “Shadow Dancer” remains a fine character study, and both Owen and Riseborough making outstanding impressions in difficult roles. However, Collette is the more interesting character, with Riseborough’s interpretation brimming with the type of emotional texture that takes such a knotty conflict and gives it a distinct face of alarm. In a year of many performances from the actress, this is her best work, infusing “Shadow Dancer” with the level of significance Marsh needs to bring the material to life.

Starring: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Stuart Graham
Director: James Marsh

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