Shadow Dancer: emotionally charged, intelligent thriller

Aug 24, 2012

Andrea Riseborough impresses as IRA mole in this impeccably acted film from Ulster's troubled past


What you need to know
A grim yet gripping psychological thriller, Shadow Dancer is set in Northern Ireland in 1993, towards the end of the Troubles. It centres on the tense relationship between a Belfast woman, Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), and Mac (Clive Owen), an MI5 agent who convinces her to turn informant.

The film is made by James Marsh, who directed the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire. It is adapted by ITV political editor Tom Bradby, who covered the IRA Ceasefire, from his own 1998 novel.

Riseborough plays a single mother from a hardline Republican family who is threatened with the prospect of being separated from her small son if she does not collude with the British. Right to the end, the film keeps viewers guessing as to where her true allegiance lies.

What the critics like
It is Andrea Riseborough's "fine" acting that makes the film, her nonchalant performance giving Shadow Dancer its "primary source of suspense", writes Variety's Justin Chang. "Quick to act but slow to reveal her innermost thoughts, often clad in bright red to stand out against the surrounding countryside, her Colette makes a dramatic virtue of unreadability".

Marsh and Bradby "successfully" tackle the Troubles, says Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, using the film's subtle yet convincing tensions, realistic backdrops and a defiant IRA funeral scene to great effect. The film is also very good at showing the "sheer misery" of the time.

This is "an intelligent and emotionally charged" spy thriller, and, crucially, the drama is character rather than plot-driven, says Empire's Dan Jolin. "How real people behave differs from what we expect from movie characters, and Marsh plays on this. There are herrings here as red as Colette's raincoat."

What they don't like
The detail is "chillingly effective" and the acting "impeccable", says Time Out's Cath Clarke. But the film can feel dragged down by its lack of momentum. "While it's hard to grumble about such a smart, intelligent drama after a summer of big bangs, its slow pace at times feels sluggish."

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