Review: James Marsh’s ‘Shadow Dancer’ Is a Thriller That’s Calm Like a Bomb

By  · Published on June 1st, 2013

Editor’s note: We’re re-running Scott’s review from last year’s Berlinale Film Festival as Shadow Dancer opens this weekend in limited theatrical release.

The image of the bomb is an apt one for Shadow Dancer. As a hunk of parts with a timer, there’s nothing naturally threatening about a bomb; it’s the explosion that matters. Hitchcock was right, and in this IRA thriller from James Marsh, incendiary devices are all over the place. Some are literal, most are figurative, and Bomb Theory abounds.

It opens with the shocking death of a young boy, surrounded by his family as blood pours from a bullet hole in his chest. It’s a direct insight into the fight the members of the IRA hold as sacrosanct and the guilt that the boy’s sister feels over sending him out into the streets on a simple errand. That sister, all grown up, is Collete McVeigh (achingly performed by Andrea Riseborough). After dropping off a suspicious bag in a tube station, she’s picked up by the authorities and taken to see Mac (Clive Owen) who dangles the promise of hard jail time in front of her until she turns reluctant informant for the MI5.

The people she’s betraying forced her into a war, but they’re also her family.

With its sheer emotional complexity, there’s nothing false or forced about this drama. That might be distracting for some, but instead of a sweeping, swelling score and blistering action, the grand intensity comes from the conversations and the ticking sound coming from an invisible bomb in the corner of the viewer’s mind. Marsh effectively shows us the shit and the fan with the wry guarantee that the two are going to meet in the worst way possible.

That’s to be celebrated. It’s a movie that places a weight on the chest and presses it down harder. It does so effectively because of a preternatural performance from Riseborough, who has proved herself as a capable character in flicks like Never Let Me Go and Brighton Rock, but who stands as a 110-pound juggernaut here demanding to play leads. A scrawny white girl with piercing blue eyes is an incongruous face of terrorism, but that’s a smart and necessary reminder that violence doesn’t have a single representative (and the character’s last name should have special extra-film meaning for American audiences). McVeigh is a woman wired and full of shrapnel, endlessly watchable and beautifully desperate.

Owen, as usual, is formidable, but his greatest talent here is in using his reactions and expressions to boost Riseborough’s performance even higher. If she’s the unstable substance in the glass jar, he’s the flame underneath trying foolishly to keep her safe even while bringing her to a boil. In their way, the actors compensate for a semi-romantic plot that doesn’t exactly ring out with believability. Mac seems like a clever cop, but he falls too hard on his emotions. Where the script doesn’t give the romance any depth, Owen and Riseborough do it just by holding each other in their eyes.

Like McVeigh, Mac is lacking in power. In the same breath that he receives congratulations for reeling her in, he’s made aware that he doesn’t have all the information. His boss Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) blithely leaves him out of the loop, making all of his promises to McVeigh pointless and keying him into a larger plot at work.

Beyond the two leads is a world where the English are loading soldiers at IRA funerals and the organization’s leaders are getting more and more paranoid. McVeigh’s brothers (Aiden Gillen and Never Let Me Go co-star Domhnall Gleeson) represent two competing philosophies. One of business and one of retribution. While Gleeson’s character is more scruffy and likable, he might be more deadly. They and the rest of the cast are as rock solid as could be hoped for – earning their own small stories as McVeigh’s battle against being discovered and killed smolders on.

The brutal success of the movie is that, instead of racing against the clock, Marsh and screenwriter Tom Bradby (from his own novel), intentionally walk as the timer runs down. It’s never dull, though. The intricate pattern of deception is worth keeping up with, and, make no mistake, Marsh makes you work for it. This isn’t spoonfed action or thrills that shock before bringing a cool smile up from the surface. The smiles never come in this world. In that way, the fear is much more pure and the stakes seem as high as the flames can carry.

It’s serpentine and unkind, but it’s slow burn filmmaking that does more with its thumb against your temple than the kind where explosions rip through every frame. It’s difficult to imagine calmly playing a scene where a possible mole’s head is being held too-long underwater, but that’s the cleverness of the work here. Marsh is the filmmaking equivalent of a chess master. He waits until the right moment to relieve small pressures while bringing in others and waiting excruciatingly patiently to touch the biggest valve of all.

The score is subdued and purposefully repetitive – returning to common themes which ratchet up the dramatic by remaining intent but not intense. In fact, every aspect of the filmmking from sound design to lonely camera shots of isolation play into the goal of celebrating the constant, horrifying ticking that can only lead to one thing.

Yes, the bomb is an excellent image for Shadow Dancer. On its own, it rests on a table not harming anyone. It takes time and a catalyst to kill, but it’s the ticking that will drive you mad.

The Upside: Beautifully acted by all, most especially by Andrea Riseborough; patiently paced suspense; successful and dramatic slowburn

The Downside: Semi-romantic subplot rings false

On the Side: This is director James Marsh’s first fictional feature after two highly acclaimed documentaries (Man on Wire and Project Nim).

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.