This review was originally published on January 27, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
"Shadow Dancer" takes place in a world of men with tarps. They lie in wait, inevitably armed, ready to create messes if only so that they might then be cleaned up. This is the reality of Belfast during the Troubles, first in 1973 as Collette McVeigh (Maria Laird) sees her younger brother die in cold blood, then in 1993 as she (now played by Andrea Riseborough) participates in retaliatory actions alongside surviving siblings Connor (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) and Gerry (Aiden Gillen) on behalf of the Irish Republican Army.
She fails to set off a bomb in London, though, and gets nabbed by MI5’s Mac (Clive Owen), who knows all about her family, including her dead brother and – more importantly – her young son. Help us, he says, and we’ll protect you and your boy; don’t, and you’re in prison for 25 years. She reluctantly agrees to cooperate, trading in her blue dress for a red jacket and struggling to navigate between Mac’s efforts towards peace and the IRA's attacks in the name of justice.
Aside from his documentaries, "Project Nim" and "Man on Wire," James Marsh directed the middle entry of BBC Films’ chilling "Red Riding" trilogy, while director of photography Rob Hardy was responsible for shooting the first chapter, so it’s little wonder why "Shadow Dancer" so keenly shares the same foreboding mood of those films. It’s a milieu which subtly suggests era-appropriate accuracy while simultaneously evoking both a sense of modern relevance and the unyielding unease of such a long-spanning period of conflict. The atmosphere and politics are then compressed to a scale more akin to "Animal Kingdom," in which a family of criminals comes to destroy itself by means of self-preservation and underhanded dealings.
The tension of Tom Bradby’s screenplay (adapted from his own novel) stems from individual loyalties, whether within the IRA, MI5 or the McVeigh household, and the conversations and confrontations which follow are terse and tense in equal measure. And caught in the middle of it all is Riseborough ("W.E."), giving a tremendously vulnerable and resolute turn as a protector at home and avenger abroad forced to reconsider the extent to which she is capable of avoiding the crossfire on all sides. Collette’s complexion is pale and pure, her face a weapon all its own: innocuous enough to blend in on a crowded subway platform, steadfast during Mac’s initial interrogation, trustworthy opposite a pressing IRA leader (David Wilmot). In the cold, cruel world of the film, Riseborough internalizes her ever-mounting struggles quite superbly.
Saddled with a more conventional agent-with-a-conscience arc, Owen still applies pressure to assets like Collette and superiors like Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) with necessary conviction, a conviction shared by Gleeson and Gillen, both good as Collette’s brothers, two of many characters who find themselves perpetually second-guessing their allies but are never lacking for genuine concern towards their loved ones.
Few characters here are clean-cut villains, with the overcast skies of Ireland every bit as gray as the nearest moral compass. Like the political turmoil which inspired it, "Shadow Dancer" is fueled by the fire to do the right thing and the sacrifice that must follow, and for 100 minutes, it’s a crackerjack ordeal to behold.
SCORE: 8.3 / 10