It’s Belfast in 1993; Colette (Andrea Riseborough) has a young son, Mark, and a close-knit family. But when she’s caught almost-bombing the London underground, she is forced into a decision – either go to prison in England and watch Mark be taken into care, or spy on her friends and family in the IRA and keep her fragile existence. Colette reluctantly chooses the latter and meets Mac (Clive Owen), her point of contact in her new double life. Through him she passes information to the British intelligence and through him she stays alive.
Taut, haunting and uncomfortably close to reality, this ground-level portrayal of the Troubles is rich in performance and seething with tension. The focus is on family relationships and day-to-day living, caught up in the anger and political antagonism of the era. Instead of a historical overview, Shadow Dancer explores what it was like to live through the conflict, and through this creates a deeply human portrayal, rich in suppressed emotion.
Screenwriter Tom Bradby adapted his novel of the same name and director James Marsh has risen to his challenge. Known for his documentaries, Man on Wire (2008) and Project Nim (2011), Marsh pulls impressive performances from the whole cast and finds a style suited to the story. The pace is level, and the tension builds quietly in the places the camera isn’t looking. It’s not a run-of-the-mill thriller, and it doesn’t have the extended cast of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (2011), but the atmosphere is still compelling, as the story weaves in and out of the characters.
With strong performances across the cast it’s difficult not to be taken in by the plight of both Colette and Mac. Although this isn’t a heart-stopping film of tragedy and remorse, it has an immediacy that locks into the reality of conflict. The final scenes don’t have the climactic eloquence of many thrillers, but the story’s outcome has a truth to reality consistent with the film’s style.