"Shadow Dancer" is a wannabe political thriller from James Marsh, director of "Man On Wire." Unfortunately, this time he seems to have tripped over it.
A young, attractive woman (Andrea Riseborough) rides London’s Underground during rush hour. She squeezes herself into a seat and patiently waits for her stop. Once there, she makes her way through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Tube system, seemingly just another one of the hundreds of commuters, then calmly drops her purse on a stairwell. At this point, a light goes off in our heads and we realize that she is definitely not just another commuter.
She is quickly nabbed and shoved into a police car as she exits the train station, having been tailed the entire time by police agents. She is brought to an undisclosed location for questioning by MI5 operative Mac (Clive Owen). During her questioning we learn that her name is Collette, and she is a member of an IRA terrorist cell operating out of Belfast. Mac gives her a choice: inform on the other members of the cell, which include her brothers, or be sent to jail and never see her young son again. Collette reluctantly decides to go undercover and gather information for Mac, but suspicions soon arise that jeopardize not only the cell’s mission, but Collette’s life and the life of her son.
Director James Marsh infuses the film with rich local color from bleak working-class sections of Belfast. Unfortunately, whereas he managed to structure the docudrama "Man On Wire" as a race against time thriller, he can’t seem to drum up the same momentum in a straight narrative. The film spends a lot of time focused on dialogue-less character close-ups and long shots of the Northern Irish countryside. There are suspenseful moments here and there, but for the most part, the film is languid in its pacing.
Clive Owen looks dashing, as always, and he is fine as Mac. He has an appropriate sense of urgency and frustration, especially once his superiors (led by a good-to-see-her-again and blonde Gillian Anderson) begin to push him aside in the investigation. Riseborough is terrific, making Collette a vulnerable and sympathetic character; she yearns for a violence-free life with her son, yet is somewhat resigned to the fact that continued violence is her lot in life. Of course, I didn’t buy for one second the supposed romance between Mac and Collette, which felt tacked on by the filmmakers as almost an afterthought. All other actors, however, perform ably in their roles, particularly Brid Brennan as Collette’s Ma, trying to remain a strong presence for her family in the midst of terrorism.
The film boasts an interesting story and a talented cast. But for a movie that wants to be a John le Carré espionage thriller, it doesn’t overcome a sluggish pace and muster up the energy that would make it worthy of le Carré.