Shadow Dancer is a dour, delicate downer about an Irish militant who is forced to become a mole for British counter-intelligence. It opens in Belfast in 1973, where a young boy is shot dead while running out to get a pack of cigarettes for his father. Twenty years later, his sister, played by Andrea Riseborough, plants a bomb on a London subway platform. After escaping through a network of subterranean tunnels, she’s picked up by MI5 agents and brought to a nondescript hotel.
Much of this opening stretch is wordless, with Dickon Hinchliffe’s score—melancholy strings trellised by repetitive guitar and piano lines—serving as connective tissue. When Riseborough finally speaks, it’s with no-nonsense agent Clive Owen, who offers her a simple deal: She can spend the next few decades in prison, or she can become his informant. Hours later, Riseborough is on her way back to Belfast. “Nobody dies, nobody gets hurt,” Owen promises her.
Nothing is so simple, however. Upon returning, Riseborough arouses the suspicion of creepy IRA goon David Wilmot, a villain in a movie without heroes. At the same time, Owen begins to suspect that his boss, played by Gillian Anderson, has ulterior motives for recruiting his new charge. Though he’s promised to protect her, Owen finds Riseborough difficult to control; their secret rendezvous become battles of will. By their second meeting, it begins to seem like the two leads are engaged in a competition to determine which one can exude more peeved world-weariness.
If there’s a political edge to this story, it’s in the understanding—implicit from early on—that this is a situation with no satisfying solution; eventually, someone is going to have to die. To that end, director James Marsh, best known for his documentaries Man On Wire and Project Nim, crafts an atmosphere of tenuous dread. The movie’s powdery color scheme and diffuse lighting make everything look fragile; unstable surfaces (fluttering curtains, overcast skies, fogged-up glass) have a tendency to find their way into the frame at key moments. More is suggested than spoken. In the movie’s most chilling moment, Riseborough passes a doorway on her way from a meeting with Wilmot and sees a gloved IRA operative rolling up a plastic tarp; had she cracked, this is where they would have executed her.