January 28, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Plot and character revelations are a critical part of James Marsh’s subtle, complex spy drama SHADOW DANCER, adapted by Tom Bradby from his own novel, so I’ll be circumspect in describing its plot beyond the initial set-up.  (Then again, I saw it at an 8:30AM screening at Sundance, so I’m not altogether sure I could reconstruct the details in any case.)

The obvious point of comparison for Shadow Dancer is the work of John LeCarre, especially because we currently have a very fine film version of the master’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on hand.  The comparison, though, is somewhat misleading.  LeCarre’s template (sometimes in recent years to the point of predictability) is to place innocents into the clutches of cynical professional spies and then detail the way they’re disillusioned and very often destroyed.  In Bradby and Marsh’s vision, there aren’t really any innocents to begin with.

We meet our protagonist Colette McVeigh as a Belfast child in a brief, unsettling prologue, in which she is unintentionally but thoughtlessly responsible for the death of her little brother in an IRA/British Army crossfire.  10 years later, as an adult (played by Andrea Riseborough, from Brighton Rock and Madonna’s W.E.), Colette has responded to this tragedy by becoming a full-fledged member of the IRA, planting a bomb in a London tube station.  Things go awry, and she’s arrested by MI6 in the person of Mac (Clive Owen), who informs her that she’ll be in jail for decades, far distant from her young son, unless she becomes an informer for the British.

Colette feels she has no choice but to agree, and the heart of Shadow Dancer concerns the many subterfuges and betrayals that follow, on both sides of the conflict.  The Northern Island portrayed in the film is a place where no one is to be trusted, and no affiliation holds for long.  Marsh, who is having a fascinating career in film–he’s also one of the world’s great documentarians, with the Oscar-winning Man On Wire and Project Nim (shamefully excluded from this year’s Oscar race) to his credit–has created, in a way that recalls his chapter of the Red Riding Trilogy, a dark and convincing portrait of a place in a perpetual state of dread.

The movie is extremely grim, and at times there’s a certain monotonousness to its inescapable sense of doom.  Also, while Bradby’s script is admirably intelligent and clear (even at 8:30AM), the fact that all the characters have to hold their cards close to the vest, since any one of them may be preparing to betray any other, means we have a limited opportunity to really know them.  Riseborough has little dialogue, and while she gives a terrific performance, conveying Colette’s fear, anger and desperation, her character is in many ways opaque.  (When she has an emotional outburst with Mac late in the story, it seems to come from another movie.)  Mac is as close as the movie comes to having a heroic figure, and Owen brings the role his own charisma, but he too is presented through blinkers much of the time, and that’s even more the case for the excellent supporting cast, which includes Aiden Gillen, Gillian Anderson, Brid Brennan and Domhnall Gleeson. Technical credits are uniformly first-rate:  greyish cinematography by Rob Hardy, convincing production design by Jon Hensen, and a pace that’s compelling and also comprehensible under editor Jinx Godfrey.

Shadow Dancer is, in the end, so in love with its shadows that it provides little in the way of dancing, and that will likely hold it back from mainstream success.  Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully executed piece of work.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."