Shadow Dancer is patiently paced and intermittently gripping and doubles as a spy thriller and family drama. Marsh is not interested in producing big thrills, but tells a slow-burning tale of a desperate woman - a mother, a daughter and a sister - who has to make a choice and by making that choice, abandon those she loves and place the lives of herself and her son in danger. Set in Belfast in 1993 on the eve of the Joint Declaration of Peace, Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough, W.E and Brighton Rock), an active member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), becomes an informant for MI5, in order to protect her young son’s welfare. After being arrested following a failed bombing of the London Underground an MI5 agent, Mac (Clive Owen), offers the single mother a choice: face 25 years of imprisonment with her son turned into foster care, or turn informant and spy on her brothers, Conner (Domhnall Gleeson) and Gerry (Aidan Gillen). Having returned home to Belfast to live with her mother (Brid Brennan), and once again getting mixed up with her brothers and their associates, Collette betrays her family and beliefs and acts as a mole. But, just Collette struggles to keep her cover Mac has to take increasing risks to protect her from other agents, including his boss (Gillian Anderson), who have classified interest in the case.

James Marsh is an Academy Award winning director of Man on Wire and Project Nim. Both are sharply directed, perfectly structured documentaries that offer up consistent twists and are engrossing from the first minute to the last. Disappointingly, this is a step down from Marsh’s impressive 1980 from the acclaimed Red Riding Trilogy.

Shadow Dancer opens strong with an extended sequence where we see Colette board a London train. We are unsure of what her business here involves but the camera wants us to see her flustered expressions and her nervous glances up the train carriage. Marsh takes the time to reveal the large handbag she is carrying and before long we are absorbed into a thrilling chase sequence that has no gunfire, no running and no haphazard editing, but remains suspenseful and unpredictable all the same.

Tom Bradby has self-adapted from his own novel, and while the story is intelligently structured and convincingly captures the tension and unease of the era, it is also a bit dry. There are few standout sequences, and the aforementioned train journey and an assassination attempt at a suburban dwelling are the pinnacles of Marsh’s meticulous crafting. It is a testament to Marsh’s restraint and the performances to ratchet up this tension. Beyond these, the rest is disappointingly lacking cinematic vibrancy and it’s a bit dull, overall.

Big-eyed Riseborough conveys so much with her face, and her performance proves she is star on the rise. But because she speaks very little and doesn’t give a whole lot away, she isn’t a character we grasp onto, sympathise with or particularly like. She keeps her affiliations a secret, constantly dodging questions from her family and sneaking in and out of the house. The audience remains in the dark too. The fact that she was directly responsible for the death of her brother – conveyed in the film’s opening sequence – is the reason why we know she will go to any lengths necessary to ensure her own young son remains safe. Colette is cold and withdrawn, stubborn and reluctant, and as the central character, a frustrating mystery.The rest of the cast are solid, if unspectacular. Clive Owen is not given much to do and his performance feels phoned in.

Marsh uses a long-lens close-up technique, taking advantage of the actors’ faces. The colour palette is dominated by beige giving the film a drab look and a hazy, washed-out appearance – somewhat reminiscent of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

While this is an attempt to cloud the viewer’s perception of the world outside of the character they are tracking, and to capture the look of the era, it gives off the tele-movie vibe a lot of the time. The only consistent splash of colour is Colette’s bright red trench coat, which she peculiarly wears to covert boardwalk meetings with Mac.

There is some well-considered insular tension within the hierarchy who all get hot under the collar trying to work out who the mole is, and though it is rarely edge-of-your seat worthy, there are some smartly directed sequences. Shadow Dancer never ceases to be engaging but it never arouses any strong emotions nor does it remain lingering in the mind for long following, leaving it a touch above average. 

[rating=3]

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

Directed by: James March

Written by: Tom Bradby (Novel & Screenplay)

Starring: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Gillian Anderson, Aiden Gillen,

Shadow Dancer, distributed through Potential Films, has a limited release in Australia October 11.

Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.