On the outset, nearly everything about Shadow Dancer appears unexciting and generic. The title is meaningless, the promotional imagery lacks character, and a brief synopsis offers nothing to distinguish it from a ton of other films. The film, directed by Man on Wire and Project Nim's James Marsh, is so dead set on minimalism and understatement that it does not seem to care if you watch it or not.
As a result, many people will probably miss out on Shadow Dancer, which is a shame because the film is excellent. A thriller that fosters and ongoing and unwavering tension rather than any dynamic thrills, a crime film that exists only between and around a culture of lawlessness, depicting almost none of it onscreen, and a family drama that never feels the need to raise its voice, Shadow Dancer offers a superb example of minimalist storytelling done right.
After a tragic prologue which explains the emotional setting of the entire film to follow, Shadow Dancer tells the story of Collette McVeigh, a single mother whose whole family is deeply involved in IRA terrorist shenanigans. When MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen) arrests Collette for trying to blow up a London subway, her only option is to become a mole and betray her mother and two highly dangerous brothers.
So it's an undercover snitch story mixed in with a family drama. Shadow Dancer keeps all this very simple and reigned in, however. At less than 100 minutes, not a scene goes wasted. Precious few actual incidents take place over the course of the film but each one leads directly into the next with both logic and finesse, lending the film the curious distinction of being plodding and propulsive at the same time.
The complications come from Clive Owen's MI5 side of the story, which examines the cold callousness of law enforcement bureaucracy (personified by the blond and somewhat regal Gillian Anderson) with enough casual blame and distrust to make Shadow Dancer seem almost like a compact, Irish remake of The Wire.
This is a film interested in mood and atmosphere but with none of the ponderousness such descriptors usually imply. Marsh frequently executes wonderfully lengthy scenes filled with often wordless storytelling. His Ireland is perpetually drab and murky. Even interiors seem somehow obstructed by fog.
But in the end, the film reveals itself to have been much more narratively driven than initially assumed. It's just hard to see at first because Marsh's storytelling remains so unusually focused on effect rather than cause that the narrative's sum amount arrives only in the moments after the film ends.
This very deliberate overall tone would have been impossible for Marsh to pull off without the help of Andrea Riseborough's amazing performance. Riseborough successfully carries the entire film and also defines a thoroughly complicated character largely without the aid of words. Most of us probably only know Riseborough from her recent appearance alongside Tom Cruise in Oblivion. I thought she was great in that film, but here she plays such a different character as to be almost unrecognizable. That she can pull of both roles indicates a genuine talent worth watching out for.
Shadow Dancer is already available on various VOD platforms but hits actual theaters on May 31. It may not look like much, but I found it exemplary, especially if you're a fan of deliberate, methodical films that don't feel pressured to follow genre conventions.