Shadow Dancer

Shadow Dancer
  • Country of production: UK / Ireland
  • Year: 2012
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: James Marsh
  • Running time: 100 minutes

Shadow Dancer is a taut psychological thriller set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland that has been called ‘riveting’ (Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph), ‘mesmerising’ (Ed Gibbs, The Independent) and ‘brilliant’ (Damon Wise, The Guardian). It focuses on Colette, a young mother (played by Andrea Riseborough) who must agree to betray her beliefs and spy on her family if she is to see her young son grow up, and whose fate lies in the hands of secret service agent Mac (played by Clive Owen).

A prologue set in 1973 shows Colette as a small girl, sending her younger brother on an errand she is meant to go on. Following a commotion outside, she watches in horror as his lifeless body is carried into the house after he has been caught in crossfire between British soldiers and Irish paramilitaries.

Twenty years later Colette is standing on a London Underground platform holding a handbag that may contain a bomb.

After she’s picked up by police, counter-terrorism agent Mac offers her a choice between going to prison and losing contact with her young son, or informing on her brothers, who are heavily involved in paramilitary activity. This would effectively carry a death sentence from the IRA were her betrayal ever to be found out.

Just when Colette is beginning to see Mac as her only support, he in turn starts to suspect his MI5 supervisor (played by Gillian Anderson) of withholding information and being prepared to sacrifice Colette for the sake of another operation.

Director James Marsh is best known as a successful documentary-maker. Man on Wire (2008) won him an Oscar, while Project Nim (2011) was regarded by many as a surprising omission from this year’s Academy awards. Shadow Dancer has been described as ‘his best work to date’ (Mike Goodridge, Screen International) and will ‘cement the director's reputation as one of the UK's leading auteurs’ (Damon Wise, The Guardian).

The film was adapted by ITN political editor Tom Bradby from his own novel, which he started writing while he was Ireland correspondent in the early 1990s. The book was a way of telling people about what was really happening, including the complex reality of informers and the intensity at the heart of the conflict, which were difficult to convey on the TV news.


Shadow Dancer


While last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ‘indicates a possible resurgence of the British espionage thriller, this is something more intimately combustible. Having the spying take place within a deeply scarred family creates an unsettling dynamic of torn loyalties and betrayals both personal and political, with the opposing forces of self-preservation and sibling love ratcheting up the tension.


Shadow Dancer has drawn plaudits for its framing of political turmoil and wider strife within the emotionally charged confines of a family home. ‘With patience and precision, the screenplay by Tom Bradby builds a claustrophobic, closely observed portrait of Colette's family life, in which paramilitary operations are inseparable from blood ties, and affection can all too easily curdle into suspicion’ (Justin Chang, Variety).

Mole trapped on the Underground   

Whereas Tom Bradby’s original novel highlighted the political struggle, the film avoids ideology and focuses on Colette’s personal conflict between her love for her family, her political views and her self-interest. Andrea Riseborough is ‘excellent’ as this ‘very ordinary woman mixed up in a struggle she barely understands’ (Derek Malcolm, The London Evening Standard).

Riseborough has for a while been heralded as a star-in-the-making, without ever seeming to grab that defining role. Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph believes Shadow Dancer ‘is finally the winning Riseborough ticket’. She’s ‘hugely impressive’ at ‘playing up her character’s exhausted resignation and irreparably broken life’ as she thinks her way out of the bind she’s in. Trevor Johnston vouched in Sight & Sound that she is ‘simply outstanding, since she signals to the audience everything she’s feeling yet never gives herself away to the rest of her household’.

Perfect execution

All the performances are ‘compelling’ as they are ‘contained and for the most part unemotional, in keeping with the story’s emphasis on what’s hidden’ (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter). Brid Brennan’s performance as the unassuming matriarch is subtle yet we sense her heartache. David Wilmot is ‘terrifically menacing’ (Mike Goodridge, Screen International) as Kevin Mulville, the merciless IRA boss who is “just doing his job”.

The economy of the dialogue – five minutes of Colette carrying a possible bomb are in near silence – instils tension. Using a mobile camera that often follows the characters from behind or the side as they go silently about their business, James Marsh establishes a mood of quiet, watchful unease, as Justin Chang noted in Variety. The characters are filmed in close-up and everyday objects such as kettles and keyboards sound overly loud, suggesting the intrusion of events in the outside world into the lives of the protagonists.

Violence is liable to erupt at any moment. Trevor Johnston, a native of Belfast, wrote in Sight & Sound that the film ‘grasps the jarring dysfunction between quotidian ordinariness and sudden bloodshed which marked life for anyone in the orbit of Northern Ireland’s Troubles’.


With its depiction of long drawn-out conflict, Shadow Dancer has drawn favourable comparisons with acclaimed Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). ‘Fatigue all round, with the inherited burden of sectarian grievance, forms the resonant base note of Marsh’s film, giving it a textural affinity with the worn-out fabric and blurry moral universe of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but with a decidedly tauter hold on pace’ (Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph).

The atmospheric use of muted colours sets the film’s tone. ‘Low light, unsettling angles and washed-out colours’ give it a sombre look and make the red coat Colette wears ‘pop like a bloodstain’ (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter).

Shadow Dancer succeeds as an ‘atmospheric, highly personal and often intricately plotted exposition of what it must have been like at ground level during a terrible part of Irish history’ (Derek Malcolm, The London Evening Standard).



Shadow Dancer



At just 30 years of age, Andrea Riseborough has established herself as one of British cinema’s most versatile and compelling performers. Acclaimed last year for playing American socialite Wallis Simpson in WE (directed by Madonna), the Tyneside-born actress had earlier won plaudits, including a Bafta nomination, for her portrait of another controversial figure of recent British history: a young Margaret Thatcher in BBC4 drama Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley in 2008.

That breakthrough role came three years after her graduation from Rada in London and followed well-received supporting roles in British TV and film dramas, including a part in Mike Leigh’s comedy Happy-Go-Lucky (also in 2008).

Higher-profile roles have ensued and in 2010 she combined serious dramas such as Rowan Joffé’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (with Helen Mirren and John Hurt) and the haunting futuristic drama Never Let Me Go with a role in Made in Dagenham, a glossy comedy-drama set among striking women car workers in the 1960s.

Last year she was named one of European cinema’s ‘Shooting Stars’ at the Berlin Festival (alongside fellow Shadow Dancer actor Domhnall Gleeson).



Clive Owen is one of a handful of genuine British film stars and he combines high-profile Hollywood work with roles in smaller, less mainstream British fare.

Like Riseborough, Owen is a graduate of Rada. He first came to public attention in Chancer, a 1990 ITV drama about an affable conman, and on the big screen in Close My Eyes (1991), as a man who has a sexual relationship with his sister.

He continued working in television throughout the 1990s, in roles that traded on his easy charm and leading-man looks. But it was as a writer who finds work in a casino in low-budget thriller Croupier (1998) that Owen achieved international recognition. Having come to the attention of US studios, in 2002 he was memorably cast as a laconic assassin in The Bourne Identity and in 2003 he played alongside Angelina Jolie in Beyond Borders, a big-budget drama about international aid workers.

He sealed his star status playing alongside Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts in Mike Nichols’s spiky relationship drama Closer in 2004, a performance that won him a Bafta, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. He followed that serious role with a major part in Sin City, a hyper-violent adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel, in 2005.

By the mid-2000s Owen was well known enough to be widely touted to succeed Piers Brosnan to play James Bond. He denied that he was ever approached, but his A-list status shows no sign of waning, thanks to compelling performances in films including high-concept British-set sci-fi movie Children of Men (2006), European thriller The International (2009), heartwarming Australian drama The Boys Are Back (2009), about a young widower struggling to raise his son, and US horror-thriller Intruders (2011).

This year he starred as Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO TV drama about the US literary titan’s relationship with revered war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (played by Nicole Kidman).



Brought up in the UK and US, Gillian Anderson has pursued successful careers in both countries. After studying drama in Chicago, she landed a starring role in science-fiction drama series The X-Files in 1993. The huge and long-running success of that show turned Anderson into one of the best known faces on television (and won her a Golden Globe and an Emmy award).

A few roles in Hollywood movies aside, notably with Sharon Stone in 1998 comedy drama The Mighty and the 1998 and 2008 big-screen versions of The X Files, Anderson has focused on substantial parts in British cinema and television. Her performance as Lily Bart, a doomed socialite in 1900s New York, in director Terence Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth (2000), was critically acclaimed. She later showed comic flair (playing a version of herself) in A Cock and Bull Story, director Michael Winterbottom’s beguiling 2005 adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy. Other significant film roles were in The Last King of Scotland (2006) and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008).

On TV she appeared in Bleak House (2005) and was a memorable Miss Havisham in the BBC’s lavish three-part adaptation of Great Expectations last year.



After a series of roles in British television shows and films in the 1990s, Dublin-born Gillen came spectacularly to public attention as the charismatic hero of Queer as Folk, Channel 4’s landmark 1999 drama set among Manchester’s gay community. Gillen’s performance won him a Bafta nomination and he parlayed the success of that show into lead roles in British films such as East London slacker comedy The Low Down in 2000.

Gillen has also worked on US studio films, including 2003 action comedy Shanghai Knights, alongside Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. But his biggest US success was on television when he played ambitious Baltimore politician Tommy Carcetti in the hugely popular HBO crime series The Wire, for which he received an Irish Film and Television Award. His association with HBO continues through his performance in their fantasy series Game of Thrones. This year he also plays a CIA agent in Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.



Son of celebrated Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson enjoyed a boost early in his career when Six Shooter, a 2004 Irish short film he appeared in alongside his father, won an Academy Award.

After working for a number of years in Irish theatre and TV, in 2009 Gleeson was cast as the grown-up Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a breakthrough he followed with a performance for the Coen brothers in their 2010 western, True Grit. That year he also played fellow Dubliner Bob Geldof in TV drama When Harvey Met Bob about the Live Aid concert, and his performance was rewarded with an Irish Film and Television Award.

He is currently filming a time-travel romantic comedy, About Time, directed by Richard Curtis.



Born in Belfast, Bríd Brennan has enjoyed a variety of supporting roles in British film and television productions, including Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999), ITV crime series drama Cracker and Doctor Who. But it is for her stage work that she is best known, notably a major part in Brian Friel’s 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa, a rural drama set in 1930s Ireland, which won her a prestigious Tony award during its Broadway run. She also won an Irish Film and Television Award for her performance alongside Meryl Streep in the 1998 film version of that play.



Irish actor David Wilmot has appeared in several British and Irish movies, including Michael Collins (1996), The Guard (2011) and Oscar-winning short Six Shooter (2004), alongside Domhnall Gleeson. But it is probably as a stage actor that he is better known and among his theatrical achievements is a nomination for a Tony award for his performance in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.



Belfast-born Graham has performed in many productions for the Irish National Theatre and has a number of television credits. He has also appeared in several acclaimed British movies, notably as a prison officer in Hunger (2008), Steve McQueen’s gruelling drama about a hunger-striking IRA inmate, and as a government minister in spy drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).



Born in Belfast in 1983, McCann originally came to the attention of casting directors through his involvement in a community youth project. An early breakthrough came when Richard Attenborough cast him in a supporting role in his period drama Closing the Ring (2007). A part in the Steven Spielberg-produced wartime series The Pacific (2010) followed and in 2011 he played the U2 singer in low-budget comedy Killing Bono (which was set in Dublin and London but shot in Belfast).



James Marsh started out directing BBC documentaries, on subjects as diverse as the eating habits of Elvis Presley and the final years of Marvin Gaye. In 1999 he made Wisconsin Death Trip, which stylishly re-enacted images and stories from a cult book of photography of the American West in the late 19th century and drew praise from the critics. His 2008 documentary Man on Wire, about a Frenchman’s attempt in 1974 to walk between New York’s Twin Towers on a highwire, had an even better reception: it won an Oscar and a Bafta for best documentary. His last film was Project Nim (2011), a compelling and poignant documentary about a chimpanzee used in a landmark 1970s social science experiment, which was nominated for a documentary Bafta.

His fiction work includes an episode of Channel 4’s widely admired Red Riding and The King, a 2005 family drama set in Texas.


Shadow Dancer

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