Shadow Dancer (***/****)
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen
Director: James Marsh
As far as spy thrillers go, Shadow Dancer is atypically bland. Set in a bleak 1993 Belfast, it’s as much Mission: Impossible as Tim Conway is Tiger Woods. It’s almost completely devoid of color, save for patches of Irish green on suburbia front lawns or the ruby red of an iconic phone booth that itself has sadly been allowed to fall into neglect. The characters are not borne by Hollywood but are instead unglamorous individuals exchanging realistic dialogue in between mundane espionage or the plotting of unsavory activities.
Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is a single mother who is busted by MI5 following a failed bomb plot on the Tube in London. A world-weary agent, Mac (Clive Owen), wastes no time in putting a deal on the table: her freedom, no questions asked, in exchange for her turning informant on her own IRA-sect family, in particular older brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and best known for appearing in the last two Harry Potter films). Either that, or lose everything – including her young son – and rot in prison. She grudgingly makes the decision we expect her to make.
The dialogue itself is sparse; the picture is mostly a showcase of glowering actors. The standout is Riseborough (who often bears resemblance to Sara Gilbert here), her Irish brogue perfect and a variety of emotions projecting effortlessly across her pale visage even when she appears to be doing nothing. But while Shadow Dancer benefits from not being a talkative movie, this also nearly proves its undoing because the characters’ weak diction is often outright unintelligible, sometimes even when they’re right in the camera. It’s like being excluded from an important conversation and then trying to eavesdrop on it from afar. As a result, you’ll really have to strain your ears to catch on as to why one character is being dunked into a bathtub or another is unceremoniously left to die in the middle of nowhere.
It’s unfortunate, because this alone prevents a very good film from being great. And like Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, Shadow Dancer is not for the impetuous. Director James Marsh lets the storyline progress as if he has all the time in the world while taking an almost impish delight in toying with unsuspecting viewers who think they know what’s going to happen during scenes of ski masks being pulled on or a .357 sneakily passed through a crowd like a hot potato, right before he jerks the rug out from underneath them. It’s as if he’s saying, “Gotcha.” Marsh carries this schtick all the way to the surprise denouement, and while it may come across as cheap to some, he gets no argument from me here in terms of its success rate.