Revelling in bleak aesthetics and themes of loyalty and duty that have fittingly served dozens of films before, James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer while akin to that class of filmmaking in spirit, does not represent that breed in practice. This supposed thriller is devoid of extended tension and fails to capitalize on what should be an emotionally complex experience, featuring a web of characters that inherently should come off as more compelling than what ultimately unravels.
Slow burn thrillers often receive unwarranted flack for the very pacing that defines them, with so many patrons branding them as boring when they are simply (and often expertly) building tension for a big, climactic payoff. That’s certainly not to say that some step over the line and become languid and pretentious but when put up beside the gunplay-riddled, twist-saturated type of thriller to which we are subjected to so often, those types of endeavours hold, for me, a place of esteem.
That’s why it’s so unfortunate that Shadow Dancer, while calling to mind that circle of slow-burn effort, forget to even light the match and what remains is a stripped down tale nearly deprived entirely of tension and populated by characters we either know little about or simply weren’t that compelling to begin with. The various motives and arcs are presented clearly enough but that does not automatically translate to riveting cinema and in this case certainly doesn’t evoke the necessary affinity we need to share with our leads.
Commencing in 1973 Belfast, we meet with a family greeted one day by tragedy as a young boy succumbs to the conflict between Britain and the IRA. For our protagonist Collette (Andrea Riseborough) this innocent casualty was a brother and years later she finds herself and her remaining family dedicated members to one of the most famed domestic terrorist groups. But after botching a bombing in London’s subway, she is given a choice by MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen): turn on her conspirators and save her son or face 25 years in prison. Needless to say she takes the option any mother would.
Riseborough is easily Shadow Dancer’s greatest asset and she does what she can with the low key material, though she is given very little opportunity to show a diverse range of emotions. If her character deviated from anything but a sombre grimace I certainly missed it. As I iterated, she and other main characters are given a complete arc, though simply because a compete path was followed does not mean that Collette undergoes a deep, personal metamorphosis. Despite everything that unfurls, she is essentially the same person when the credits role, save being pointed in a different direction.
Clive Owen is essentially a supporting character here, playing a government agent who while committed to his duty begins to soften his resolve. But despite the obvious trope of an authority figure becoming protective of their undercover informant, there is no driving force for his actions and as such is a rather shapeless individual. Such is the case with many other characters populating Shadow Dancer. When bodies dropped I felt nothing, when comeuppance was supposed to have been dolled out I was left unsatisfied and elements supposed to be shocking twists left me unmoved.
It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what doesn’t gel about Shadow Dancer as there are more than enough competent elements assembled to fill three films. The setting and slightly dated time period add identity and a gloomy sort of flare, the thesps are all proven talents (the cast also include Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen and The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson among others), and the espionage plot itself has personality.
Even despite what I’ve said I was never bored when watching and the pacing is actually quite smart. Perhaps what it comes down to is how robotic and un-engaging it turns out to be. That could be the fault of screenwriter Tom Braby who also wrote the book from which the film is based. We’ve seen it before after all – a talented novelist unable to distance themselves from their own material and as such either create something overblown or in this case a film that plays out too much like a book.
So for director Marsh who has some superb documentaries and an Oscar to his name and Ms. Riseborough who I presume will be a big star in years to come, I hope I can safely say that down the line Shadow Dancer was but a minor blip. Briefly passing over the earlier reviews out of Sundance and Berlin, it would seem I am in the minority with my opinion and many found the gripping energy that I found utterly absent. So I do truly hope anyone further who seeks out this British import finds something to admire, as my fondness for this subgenre of thriller and wish to see it flourish supersedes my personal feelings this time around, as disappointed as they may be.