Belfast, 1993. Having been caught leaving a bomb on London’s Tube network, Colette (Riseborough) is coerced to spy on her IRA brothers (Gillen, Gleeson) by MI5 agent Mac (Owen). But it’s not long before a deadly net closes around her.
Movie spies, it would seem, are undergoing a phase of deliberate deglamorisation. While Ethan Hunt was titting about up the Burj Khalifa, George Smiley soiled his Oxfords on England’s rain-pounded pavements. Upcoming Ben Affleck thriller Argo promises to do for the CIA what Tinker Tailor did for the SIS. Even James Bond seems to be taking the Smiley route, with Skyfall sending him to... the London Underground. Austerity Britain, eh? Now director James Marsh, making a rare non-doc feature (he is best known for the towering Man On Wire and Project Nim), is in on the act with Shadow Dancer, a woman-on-the-inside IRA drama which seems to make the mundanity of real-world spycraft a point of pride.
Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is forced to report on her own family, a tight sect of IRA die-hards resisting the end of the Troubles in 1993. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that her scenes are resolutely domestic: backgrounded by faded floral wallpaper and bruised skies, soundtracked by the chink of cutlery and the tattoo of Belfast rain on car roofs. But the MI5 office stalked by her conscience-riven handler Mac (Clive Owen) is even blander — a study in grey, taupe and bevelled edges.
That we should treat this as ‘realistic’ should go without saying, and his impressive cast — the wan, bone-china-delicate Riseborough above all — rise to the challenge. It’s worth noting, though, that Shadow Dancer isn’t based on a true story, but a novel (although writer Tom Bradby drew from his time as a TV reporter in Belfast during the ’90s). Yet the film is crunchingly efficient as a thriller.
Marsh is careful, though, to keep the drama character- rather than plot-driven. How real people behave differs from what we expect from movie characters, and Marsh plays on this. There are herrings here as red as Colette’s raincoat. And, as such, the finale comes as a bit of a face-slap. But on examination it makes sense. People aren’t simple. And neither are great spy thrillers — especially the dreary-looking ones.
As beige as an old PC, but beneath the surface the blood pumps bright scarlet. An intelligent and emotionally charged spy drama.