Review: Shadow Dancer (2012)

Director: James Marsh


(This review originally appeared on

Andrea Riseborough’s attempts to earn leading lady status have fallen short thus far, but it certainly hasn’t been her fault. In both the unnecessary remake of Brighton Rock and Madonna’s stylishly hollow W.E., Riseborough proved to be capable of commanding the screen despite the shoddiness around her. Her characters are often fragile but possessed of strength beyond what her slender frame seems capable of. And with Shadow Dancer, she finally has a capable director and crew to back her up.

After Wallis Simpson in W.E., Riseborough plays another character on the cusp of attacking the British establishment, albeit with plastic explosives rather than extra-marital affairs. London, 1993. IRA operative Colette McVeigh is caught attempting to plant a bomb in a Tube station in London. After being picked up and left to stew in her own guilt, MI5 handler Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a choice: snitch on her terrorist brothers or go to jail and have her young son be put into care. Her decision to go behind her brothers’ backs reflects the humanity at the heart of Shadow Dancer.

Adapted from Tom Bradby’s novel (by the author himself), Shadow Dancer eschews the political for the personal. Whilst Colette’s brothers Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Brendan (Domhnall Gleeson) rally against the newly-signed Downing Street Declaration, and her mother (Bríd Brennan) looks away in wilful ignorance, Colette reports to Mac to preserve what little life she has. Riseborough is never less than terrific as Colette, as she effortlessly shifts from barely-kept composure to panic and back again. Despite her fragility, she convinces as a woman driven to horrible deeds by a tragic past. She also gets bonus points for managing to get the accent right.

Director James Marsh switches from his exploits as documentarian (Project Nim, Man On Wire) to make a fine thriller. This is a personal story primarily, though this doesn’t stop Shadow Dancer from offering plenty of thrills. As Colette struggles to keep her new sideline a secret, local organiser hothead Mulville (Daniel Wilmot) threatens violence from just beyond the screen. The angst is written all over Riseborough’s cracked-porcelain face, and she strikes sparks with an effectively gruff Owen in scenes with just the right amount of Stockholm Syndrome injected into them. Marsh keeps the pace zippy, and Shadow Dancer often threatens to send you to the edge of your seat.

However, Marsh’s visual choices are more than a little obvious (Colette’s red coat is the only colour in a Belfast comprised of beiges, mauves and greys). There’s also little evidence to convince that we are ever really in Belfast (the film was shot mostly in Dublin), and the likes of Gillen and Gillian Anderson (as an MI5 ice queen) are effective but underused. Still, these niggles can’t detract from an effective thriller with a marvellous leading lady at its heart. Rest assured, after this Andrea Riseborough won’t be ignored so easily again.