Film: Shadow Dancer

Written by Joshua Chambers on 5 September 2012 in Culture

Spy stories are most commonly exhilarating, unnerving, erotic, and perhaps slightly eccentric. There’ll be a brutish, masculine hero, a fight scene or three, and a car that transforms into a fondue set. Understatement has little place in many movies of the genre, which is a little ironic given that the profession is built around calculation and intrigue.

Yet Shadow Dancer, a British flick about MI5 in Northern Ireland, excels in understatement. Slowly, carefully, cautiously, the plot develops and intriguing threads are teased together. However, while it has all the ingredients to make a captivating thriller (if not a classic spy story), it didn’t rise to the occasion.

Let’s start with the stellar cast. Clive Owen plays an MI5 spy charged with recruiting Northern Irish republicans to double-cross their own side. Early on, he manages this, blackmailing Andrea Riseborough to spy on her brothers. Yet while Owen’s an actor of immense talent, the viewer can’t build a connection with his rather two-dimensional character.

This was not the case with Riseborough, whose interpretation of a conflicted, miserable mother desperately trying to protect her son is sensational. There’s a moment in the film when you’re transfixed by her coldness, her palpable loneliness, which she manages to portray without uttering a word.

Both the dialogue and the plot build a sympathetic picture of people caught up in the Troubles. Yet the determination of the director to pursue subtle, gritty, sober reflection at all costs means that the exhilarating parts of the film aren’t as strong as they should be.

Spy films always end up on TV on a bank holiday Monday. Rather than seeing this one in the cinema, I’d recommend waiting until then.

Certificate 15
In cinemas now

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