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Home Reviews Cinema reviews Film review: Shadow Dancer
Film review: Shadow Dancer Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 21 August 2012 10:06

Shadow Dancer still 

After Brighton Rock, Resistance and W.E., Andrew Riseborough seemed destined to become an amazing actress forever trapped in bad films. But thanks to Shadow Dancer, that’s finally changed. She’s superb, as you’d expect. But the film? It’s a corker.

Colette (Riseborough) has grown up in a family actively involved in the troubles. We first meet her as a young girl in 1970s Belfast, a dangerous city where violence lurks just around the corner. 12 years later, she’s joined in, carrying a suspect package on the London Underground all the way to East London. Then, she bottles, ditching the bag on a stairwell and fleeing for the fire exit.

These two sequences, almost completely free of dialogue, form a nail-biting introduction that tells us all we need to know: Firstly, Colette’s not like the rest of her family. Secondly, Mile End station hasn’t changed much in 20 years. And thirdly, James Marsh can direct the heck out of anything.

It may surprise those familiar with the director's non-fiction work, but Marsh goes from Man on Wire to woman on the edge without blinking, capturing the period action with all the punch of a documentary. When a relieved Colette returns home to her son, it feels real. When she’s threatened by her violent older brother (an electrifying Aiden Gillen), you believe it. And when weary MI5 agent Mac appears, asking her to turn informant, you’re right behind her.

Colette’s life soon descends into a cycle of meeting Mac in secret, lying to her family, putting on a balaclava and picking her boy up from school. It’s this character-driven rhythm that pushes the thriller forwards – but slowly. Marsh is unafraid to linger on details; the murky brown smudge of Colette’s faded living room, her younger, more sympathetic brother (the always-impressive Domhnall Gleeson), the craggy lines on Clive’s dogged face, her striking red coat, the colour of a phone box, which stands out against the muted Irish streets.

The elegant visuals carry a sense of decay that echoes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, but perhaps the more natural running mate for this is Steve McQueen's Hunger. An equally stark drama focused on one person's fight for freedom, Shadow Dancer shares that same stripped-down emotion – Tom Bradby’s script never forces the relationship between Mac and Colette, letting Andrea’s single mother dictate the plot with a quiet simplicity.

Marsh can still deliver shocks from the silence, though, building up to an explosive final third that creeps out of nowhere. There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Christopher Nolan these days, but James Marsh's mastery of storytelling is equally impressive. Between this and Project Nim, he’s as versatile as Michael Winterbottom and as riveting as Paul Greengrass. Nolan's been pretty explicit on the matter, but Marsh? There's a Bond film I'd like to see.

With its taut runtime and beautiful performances, Shadow Dancer confirms the Project Nim director as one of Britain's best filmmakers. The biggest mark of his talent? Letting one of Britain's best actresses completely steal the show.




  • aiden gillen
  • andrea riseborough
  • clive owen
  • domnhall gleeson
  • ireland
  • shadow dancer