British director James Marsh returns to fictional filmmaking (of sorts) with Shadow Dancer (2011), having previously moved with the documentaries Man on Wire (2008) – for which he received an Academy Award – and the sublime Project Nim (2011). Utilising the tried-and-tested docudrama approach, Marsh’s latest is a thriller of uncommon beauty, intellect and most of all, profound respect for its audience. During a slow-burn opening sequence, we are introduced to Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) who, after encountering personal tragedy as a child during the Troubles, is a tortured, angry soul living in Belfast.
When we first meet her as an adult, she is planning to detonate a bomb at Mile End Tube station, before being apprehended by the MI5. Their goal? To get her to spy on her own family; a sect of die-hard IRA fanatics. Their leverage? To deprive Colette of her family – most of all her young son – if she doesn’t cooperate. Shadow Dancer does a fantastic job of examining the duality of its protagonist, both as mother and as terrorist, trying to keep her head above water as both sides turn up the heat. While Marsh is owed a wealth of credit for so handsomely adapting Tom Bradby’s source novel, it is Riseborough who surrenders Colette’s vulnerability, and most of all, her humanity, torn between numerous allegiances.
Clive Owen is once again the reliable everyman, playing the conscientious MI5 agent Mac, whose job it is to keep the operation running smoothly. Naturally, when his superiors – chiefly Gillian Anderson’s Kate Fletcher – don’t seem to care that Colette might be in danger, he is faced with his own dilemma, himself torn between duties professional and personal. Much like last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Shadow Dancer thrives on tense dialogues and an unassuming pace. But that’s not to say it isn’t thrilling, because Marsh’s visual dynamism keeps it clipping along, building to an unexpected and chilling twist ending, providing a stirring answer to the film’s prime question. Likely to be one of the year’s best thrillers, Marsh’s latest is a beautifully composed, wonderfully acted and thoroughly engrossing film.