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Shadow Dancer – review

Glances say more than words in this IRA thriller, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Shadow Dancer (15)
dir:James Marsh

One quandary for anyone making a thriller is how much to reveal to the audience and when. In Vertigo, which the august journal Sight and Sound recently voted the most totally superduper film ever, Alfred Hitchcock spills the beans early, transforming the picture from a thriller reliant on narrative ambush to an analysis of amour fou, in which suspense warps into dread. Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View, on the other hand, never lets us know more than the hero. For such a film to achieve an impact beyond its first viewing, any unforeseen pay-off must be a logical extension of what’s gone before. That’s why The Parallax View remains in our esteem and our DVD collections while the same director’s Presumed Innocent, with its “twist” ending, does not.

It’s impossible to say whether Shadow Dancer will be remembered as long as a Hitchcock or a good Pakula – but it’s unusual in containing elements of both approaches, the slow burn and the scalding surprise. The picture opens in Belfast in 1973. A young girl, sent out by her father to buy his smokes, seconds her younger brother instead to carry out the task while she stays at home threading plastic beads on to a string – a makeshift rosary that hints at the guilt to come. Clever writing, this, by Tom Bradby, the ITV News reporter who adapted the screenplay from his novel: the child’s cigarette errand is a period detail that functions also on the levels of plot and motivation. When the boy returns, he is dying from a gunshot wound. No further explanation is needed for the course his sister’s life will take.

When we next see Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), it is 20 years later, on the eve of the Joint Declaration of Peace, and she is taking a bomb on to the London Underground. After planting her device, she is dragged off to a bright, bare hotel room where an MI5 agent, Mac (Clive Owen), gives her the skinny: should she refuse now to turn informant on her brothers, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), she will be sent to prison and her young son taken into care. Knowing Colette’s file as we do, Mac can be fairly sure she won’t let another cherished young boy slip through her fingers.

The director, James Marsh, returns to fiction here, having made his name in documentary with Man on Wire and Project Nim. There is nothing of that genre in the look of the new movie. Its visual motif is the stylised long-lens close-up, which keeps the subject’s face in focus while everything below the chin dissolves into a haze. We only ever see the tip of the iceberg.

Riseborough gets the lion’s share of those close-ups and the film couldn’t wish for a performer more adept at keeping her own counsel. Whether she’s watching her son master his new bicycle or attending an interrogation that could end with her torture, she has the grave fragility of a perpetual widow. With so few lines, we can never be certain what she’s thinking about, though “Must buy a new mackintosh” should be high on her list: in the film’s dour landscape, her garish red coat serves a symbolic purpose (she’s bloodstained) but might not be the best fashion choice for those clandestine meetings with MI5.

The prologue does a lot of the work for Riseborough and for the film. It’s telling that no one ever refers to the dead boy, either because they’re talked out or bottled up. Yet this mood liberates Marsh to prune back exposition and characterisation to its barest minimum, with pregnant glances filling in for pages of dialogue. Occasionally he is too severe, cutting through flesh and into bone. Does key information about Gerry, for instance, now reside on the cutting room floor? For a man who occupies MI5’s attention, he makes only the weakest of impressions, a wallflower at his own party.

A film that insists that its characters are unknowable is in danger of relegating them to enigmatic specks in the distance but Shadow Dancer gets the balance about right, maintaining the urgency of Collette’s predicament without explaining or sanitising her. Surprises that could have been cataclysmic tend to register here as muted tremors, which is not to say the movie isn’t powerful – only that Marsh is unfashionably interested in aftershock, rather than explosion.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?