Film Review: Shadow Dancer

daniel cohen gets his Irish up …


Plot: Set in Belfast, early 1990’s. After attempting to bomb a London train station, Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is brought into custody by MI5 operative Mac (Clive Owen). She reluctantly agrees to spy on her IRA brothers in order to protect her son. But when she is slowly suspected of being an informant, Collette isn’t sure she feels safe in Mac’s custody.

When you have a movie where the set-up is protagonist playing informant, you better have damn good characters and suspense, because otherwise you’re just waiting for them to get exposed. So does Shadow Dancer succeed on this front? Kind of. While our main character is always engaging, she toggles between two sides throughout the movie – MI5, and her family, who she’s reluctantly spying on. This film is pretty simple to break down: When Collette is with Mac, I was into it. When she’s with her family, I didn’t care. Thanks for reading, everybody! Oh fine, I’ll break it down more.

First of all, let’s examine Collette, played by Andrea Riseborough. This is a damn good performance. The amount of pain and misery that is expressed in her face is overwhelming. She has very little dialogue, but her facial expressions make her an intriguing character. That is always the sign of great acting. At times it’s almost a little too much, but this is definitely a character you feel for. Despite the film’s shortcomings, I wanted to see how Collette’s story was going to end.

After a depressing flashback scene that creates sympathy for Collette right off the bat, we are treated to a tense opening where Collette attempts to bomb a train station. After that, we get the best scene of the movie, where Mac (an MI5 operative played by Clive Owen) interrogates Collette. The back and forth between them is fantastic. It’s tense, the dialogue is just right, powerful but to the point, and it perfectly sets up the horrible decision Collette has to make. And once again, Riseborough does a great job of showing just how tormented she is by having to decide between jail and ratting on her family. This scene instantly sets up both animosity, but also a bond between the two characters.

So it sounds like the movie starts off pretty great, right? But after the first 15 minutes, this film takes a complete cliff dive, becoming completely uninteresting. Once this gets into Collette’s family, you just don’t care. Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson play the brothers Gerry and Connor respectfully, and they are about as interesting as bread crust. This is where the movie fails. The interaction and interplay between Collette and the brothers is completely flat. It’s as if Andrea Riseborough is in a different movie, luckily she is still interesting during this part of the film.

Another massive weakness is the primary antagonist, Kevin (David Wilmot), a huge player in the IRA, and who suspects something is amiss with Collette. Talk about a boring non-threatening villain. Yes, technically he is threatening, but the performance is so lackluster, it doesn’t feel that way. And if the movie wants to set this relationship up as the main source of tension, the character needed to be both written and performed better. Because he is so ‘eh,’ most of the tension in this film just evaporates.

But whenever the movie goes back to Collette and Mac, and their secret beach meetings, I was sucked back in. The more compelling suspense is Collette’s rising belief that this guy just isn’t capable of protecting her, as opposed to the whole ‘Will the IRA find her out as a spy?’ As much as I like the scenes between her and Mac though, something happens in their relationship that seemed a little sudden, and felt like it was only there because the director (James Marsh) knew the film was dragging. I can’t say it was completely out of left field, but it was pretty jarring.

There’s also a sub-plot with Mac that wasn’t very interesting where his operation seems to be getting phased out. But it was an excuse to cast Gillian Anderson as his supervisor, and she’s good in the film, despite the small role.

For a movie that is so dependent on the theme of family, it’s a shame this element wasn’t represented better. But because of Riseborough’s performance, I enjoyed this more than not, and I give the movie a lot of credit for having a perfect ending that is both unpredictable, but not forced. If you can get through the whole lot of nothing in between, you’ll get a good first and last 15 minutes, in addition to a great leading lady.

Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.