Riseborough saves a sluggish Shadow Dancer

Journalist Tom Bradby’s 1998 debut novel gets the big screen treatment in James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer.  Set in the months prior to the 1994 ceasefire, this British thriller is rooted within an influential Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) family in Belfast.  Quietly rising star Andrea Riseborough is the focus of Shadow Dancer’s meticulously-paced web of betrayal, but she’s not alone in secretly pursuing her own best interests.  Distinctly British political intrigue fuels the fire of Bradby’s story, but his screenplay struggles to build up speed.

Shadow Dancer is in UK cinemas 24 August

Shadow Dancer gets off to a quick start, both in its 1973 prologue and the subsequent attempted bombing of a London Underground line twenty years later.  When Clive Owen’s MI5 agent, Mac, hits the scene, things grind to a virtual standstill.  With little dialogue and a fair amount of waiting early on, Shadow Dancer sets into a sluggishness it never quite shakes.  Once Riseborough’s Collette finally strikes a deal, for the sake of her young son, the wick is lit on the slow-burn plot that burns possibly a bit too slowly.  Placing Collette at odds with her family, though unbeknownst to them, is an intriguing premise that is made all the more threatening with the introduction of David Wilmot as the IRA’s head rat catcher.  Calmly menacing, Wilmot’s Kevin acts as something of an internal affairs agent with a license to kill for the terrorist group.  His exchanges with Riseborough are rife with tension and unassumingly become the film’s high points.  Shadow Dancer presents a handful of such suspenseful moments, but fails to sustain the momentum whilst moving from one to the next.

Anyone familiar with Riseborough’s previous roles will be unsurprised to see that she steals the show here.  Donning a seemingly natural Northern Irish brogue, she brings the deeply conflicted Collette to compelling life.  At once, without so much as break a sweat, Riseborough mixes dread with contemplation and courage.   By comparison, the more experienced Owen seems to be, at times, trying to keep up with her.  His screen time shared with Riseborough is preferable to that set in an MI5 office, where he clashes with his calculating superior (a coolly detached Gillian Anderson).  Back in Belfast, strong support is provided by Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson, as Colette’s tough-as-nails, extremist brothers.  It’s certainly no fault of the cast’s that Shadow Dancer is not as gripping as it should be.

Instead, blame falls largely on the pacing woes, which can be seen in Bradby’s scripting.  As his first screenwriting effort, Shadow Dancer contains too many scenarios that, while they may work within a novel, lag onscreen.  With a desaturated colour palette, the film feels all the more dry in those moments.  There’s a thoroughly engaging plot running through Shadow Dancer, but it simply has not been adapted well enough for the screen in order to meet its full potential.  An experienced hand to assist the author in making necessary cuts and additions to his work would likely have gone a long way.  At the very least, Marsh should have tightened the reins, but there’s no obvious evidence of this occurring.

Methodically delivered, aesthetically pallid, and anchored by strong performances Shadow Dancer has all the hallmarks of a classic British thriller.  Yet, flaws at script level prevent it from becoming a truly engrossing experience.  Still, Shadow Dancer is worth catching for Riseborough alone, even if it is just another stepping stone on her way to Hollywood stardom.  7.5/10

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Amateur film critic and photographer residing in sunny London.