[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Shadow Dancer opens today in limited release.]
It’s great when movies are a slow burn, but to qualify for that description there needs to be at least some heat. James Marsh‘s Shadow Dancer moves at a glacial pace and barely does anything to build tension. There’s hardly any urgency and no interest in the intrigue. A compelling lead performance is essential to making a film like this working, but actress Andrea Riseborough meanders through her role and fails to convey any deeper emotions or conflict. Some movies can be effective “anti-thrillers” where they play against expectations and still manage to generate drama. Shadow Dancer just seems to be against thrills.
Colette McVeigh (Riseborough) has been an active member in an IRA cell for twenty years after witnessing her younger brother shot dead when she was a child. In 1993, Colette is in the middle of trying to set off a bomb in the London Underground when her plans are foiled and she’s arrested by MI5 agents. She’s then offered a deal by Agent Mac (Clive Owen): serve as an informant or be taken into jail and lose custody of her young son. Colette accepts the deal, which involves not only spying on her compatriots, but also on her brother (Domhnall Gleeson). Meanwhile, Mac, who now serves as her handler, discovers that the agency may want to burn Colette just as fast as they recruited her.
All of the elements are in place for a taut thriller: family betrayal, life-and-death stakes, two people being forced to investigate their own organizations, but all of this adds up to a crushing bore. The only scenes with any energy and excitement are when Mac is hard-charging around MI5, asking for favors, and questioning his bosses. The frantic-and-weary Clive Owen isn’t a new character for the talented actor, but he plays his part well and Marsh’s direction in these scenes matches the character’s purpose and will.
But then we go over to Colette and the film falls asleep. Instead of conveying the character’s fears, doubts, strengths, and weaknesses, Riseborough walks around in a daze. Even in the rare moments where the character acts passionately, the performance feels half-hearted. The approach may have been done to show how Colette is conflicted and unwilling to give herself over to either side, but instead the character feels detached and indecisive.
Matters are made worse when the story makes a detour into showing her organization’s dynamics between the men running the show. It’s almost a completely different movie with its own set of intrigue and motives, but these discussions don’t involve Colette. The character feels even smaller as we see that the cell is trying to root out their mole as well as the deal with their on-going conflict with England. The idea may be that Colette is a pawn stuck in the middle of two larger players, but because there’s hardly any action on her part, she feels like a minor character in her own story.
As a documentary filmmaker, Marsh is one of the best after having delivered Man on Wire and Project Nim within the last four years. He’s also shown he can do drama with his 2009 film, Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980. But his quiet approach to Shadow Dancer completely backfires because he takes what should be a captivating story and then trusts it will work with a low-key, quiet approach. Thrillers don’t need to be loud and bombastic, but Shadow Dancer hardly makes a sound.