This summer has, by and large, been a disappointing one at the cinema. Christopher Nolan sacrificed depth and meaning for explosions and plot holes. Jason Bourne came back not with a bang but an odd sci-fi whimper. So thank goodness for Shadow Dancer, a film dripping with quality from every frame.
Set predominantly in 1990s Belfast, Shadow Dancer clearly stakes out its intentions from the opening. A young girl, Colette, is told by her father to go and buy him cigarettes. She passes off the job to her younger brother, so that she can focus on making necklaces. Few words are spoken, but tension is everywhere. You get a powerful sense of foreboding, of trouble right around the corner. Then the brother gets carried back in with a bullet in him.
The very next scene shows a now grown up Colette (Andrea Riseborough) dropping off a bomb in the London underground for the IRA. After her capture she is eventually turned by a weary MI5 officer (Clive Owen) and convinced to become an informant against her powerful family. Or has she? And if she has, will she get away with it?
Questions like this are at the heart of Shadow Dancer. It is above all a human drama, not concerned with the political machinations of the issues at play but the state of mind of its players. It is a true masterclass in the art of suspense, and populates its runtime with suspicion and bluffing in the place of gratuitous action. Unlike so many films it is not afraid of silence and uses it to dramatic effect, highlighting the many unspoken words flying through the air. The resulting atmosphere can be discomforting, and it leaves you unsure right through to the final frame.
While the direction from James Marsh (a name usually associated with documentaries, such as Project Nim and Man on Wire) is confident and well shot, the true quality lies in the action. Riseborough is a revelation, drawing the eye and expressing a whole range of emotions. Clive Owen gives a truly believable performance of a conflicted do-gooder, and Aidan Gillen, previously king of television on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to lengthy roles in shows such as The Wire, Identity and Game of Thrones, shows his considerable talent translates to films as well.
Shadow Dancer is not a blockbuster. It does not have a marketing budget larger than the GDP of Belgium. There is no CGI to be found. What it does have instead is a story that grips you and won’t let go, and characters that you find yourself invested in with ease. As a piece of pure interactive drama, Shadow Dancer offers a complete experience the likes of which haven’t been seen since 127 Hours.