A version of this review appeared in The Age, October 11, 2012.
Films about the Irish Troubles are nearly always ponderous: is it because directors feel obliged to avoid taking sides? The curse returns with Shadow Dancer, directed by James Marsh, a storyteller of proven talent best-known for the documentary Man on Wire. Adapted by screenwriter Tom Bradby from his own novel, the story centres on Belfast single mother Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), an IRA sympathiser who guiltily fumbles a planned bomb attack on the London Underground. Fleeing the scene, she's picked up by MI5 and brought before an interrogator, Mac (Clive Owen), who uses a mix of coaxing and blackmail to turn her into an infomant.
Shadow Dancer has the benefit of two good actors and the film is at its best when they go one-on-one, in a kind of mutual seduction conducted, initially at least, on strictly impersonal terms. Riseborough gave a star performance as Mrs Simpson in Madonna's neglected W.E., but here she's back to conveying steel beneath fragility without overdoing the nervous tics, while Owen is typically strong and understated as a basically decent man struggling to repress his tender side.
And yet the film hardly seems like more than an exercise: the plot wraps up neatly but the emotional significance of a key revelation is barely explored. Rather than drawing us into the drama, Marsh and his cinematographer Rob Hardy hold us at a distance with a fiddly, arty style, heavy on long shots that turn the characters into stick figures, colours that are either drained or over-accentuated (Collette's red coat plays a key role), and close-ups of windows spattered with rain.