Published on August 24th, 2012 | by Padraic Coffey


Shadow Dancer (2012)

“Collette McVeigh – Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy”. So reads the tagline for James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, a deliberate allusion to 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Sadly, attempts to invoke Tomas Alfredson’s espionage thriller do not end there. In tone and pacing, Shadow Dancer mimics Alfredson’s film, yet fails to move beyond the clichés we have come to expect from countless other stories documenting the Troubles.

In England in the early 1990s, Collette (Andrea Riseborough), a dispassionate IRA member, plants a bomb in a London Underground Station. While it fails to detonate, she is apprehended by M15 Agents and interrogated by Mac (Clive Owen). Collette’s brothers Conor (Domhnall Gleeson) and Gerry (Aidan Gillen) are more prominent IRA members than she, and Mac aims to persuade Collette into co-operating with him in exchange for her freedom. Initially reluctant, she decides to turn informant in the hope of saving her son from foster care.

If a period piece detailing a Belfast native’s recruitment into M15 by an English handler sounds familiar, it could be because the set up of Shadow Dancer is strikingly similar to Kari Skogland’s Fifty Dead Men Walking, released in 2008. That film was much-maligned for the dramatic licence it took in depicting real-life mole Martin McGartland, not the first time a film about Northern Ireland had courted controversy. Here, the screenplay is by Tom Bradby, a former Ireland correspondent for ITV, who evidently has enough first-hand experience of the Troubles to instil his script with some authenticity. Marsh, too, is no stranger to fact, having won an Academy Award for his 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Stringent realism, however, cannot save a film if it does not create a compelling narrative.

Although Marsh has assembled an impressive cast, including Owen, the ubiquitous Gillen and rising-star Gleeson, none are given the opportunity to flesh out their characters in any significant way. Gillen is reduced to a few negligible lines of dialogue, while those expecting a comeback from the absurdly high-billed Gillian Anderson, as a callous M15 colleague of Owen’s, will be gravely disappointed. In that regard, Shadow Dancer is most reminiscent of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which relegated many of its high-calibre players to bit parts.

Marsh does display technical prowess at times, such as a tracking shot through the house of a detective who has just narrowly avoided death. Nonetheless, after Steve McQueen’s magnificent Hunger and Oliver Hirshbiegel’s underrated Five Minutes of Heaven, the Troubles on screen should be more than just a montage of car bombs, torture scenes and Belfast’s perennially grey tenements. We’ve been here before, not just in Fifty Dead Men Walking, but The Boxer, Nothing Personal, Hidden Agenda… the list goes on.


About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.

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