Collette McVeigh seems to be a fairly normal little girl, creating beaded necklaces and bribing her younger brother into running a quick errand for their father that she does not want to do herself. Unfortunately, this errand ends in tragedy, with her brother getting shot and killed. As her mother weeps over his body and her father fixes in on her with a look that could kill, Collette stands frozen, devastated. Shadow Dancer focuses on the life of a now grown-up Collette (Andrea Riseborough) who has a son of her own and is tied up in the “family business” (the IRA), rooted in taking down the English government which cost their brother his life.
The guilt Collette surely felt over her brother’s demise is what pushed her into this life as she seems on edge at all moments and never quite comfortable with what she is doing. After a failed attempt at bombing a London subway, Collette is picked up by an MI5 officer, Mac (Clive Owen), who offers her a deal – become his informant or get thrown in a London prison and never see her son again. Collette only seems at ease when she is with her son, making Mac’s threat all it takes to get Collette to agree this double life.
Things are further complicated when it is revealed that one of Collette’s brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen), is the central (and volatile) force behind the movement Mac is after. Thanks to his increasing paranoia, Gerry begins to grow suspicious of his sister while Mac is growing suspicious of his boss Kate (Gillian Anderson), afraid that his operation, and Collette’s life, are merely pawns in a greater chess game. Things begin to get dicey for them both as the narrative escalates and a sudden reveal turns everything on its head.
Shadow Dancer wants to be a tight thriller as the story twists and turns and the stakes grow with them, but the stark cinematography and piano heavy score (from composer Dickon Hinchliffe) create a more mellow feeling punctuated by only a handful of action-packed moments. Owen and Riseborough both turn in captivating performances under James Marsh’s direction and while their time on screen together certainly popped, Mac’s loyalty to Collette never quite had enough reasoning behind it to back up his actions.
The Upside: If you were a fan of the look and feel of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, this film should be right up your alley.
The Downside: Filled with quiet moments and little action to break it up, Shadow Dancer threatens to be more boring than exciting.
On the Side: If you are curious about British film and looking to get an introduction into their style, this would be a good place to start.