By John Lichman | The Playlist January 25, 2012 at 3:09PM
If “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” represented the height of Cold War paranoia within the British intelligence community, then “Shadow Dancer” is the next chapter, replacing the ominous Russian government with a more localized threat: The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Opening in 1970s Belfast, a young Colette McVeigh ignores her father's request to go to the store and instead sends her brother. Within minutes, he returns shot, surrounded by his family and Colette is forced from the room by her father's icy gaze. Some twenty years later, we find her (Andrea Riseborough), fidgeting with her purse on the London subway system. It only takes a second to realize this is a bomb, as men in leather jackets with newspapers constantly hover around her. When she does finally leave the bag and run, escaping through a series of tunnels and back onto the street, she's quietly picked up and left in a hotel room as Mac (Clive Owen) watches her from the next room. In classic spook fashion he has two things to tell her: he has proof that her brother was killed using a supposed Irish Republican Army bullet and he wants her become his informer about the local cells. Or else, she'll never see her son ever again and go to jail in England as a terrorist.
Sounds like a plan, except the “local cells” are under the control of Colette's other brother, Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and his ruthless lieutenant (Michael McElhatton), who would do anything to keep Gerry in power. Colette tries to uncover any plot that could spare her life on the outside and Mac begins to learn that his new asset may be nothing except bait for one of the longer running IRA operations. It's no secret, however, Colette wants out of the IRA and hadn't bothered to arm the bomb in London. Meanwhile, the knowledge of a mole within the ranks is well known as Gerry slowly leaves his family behind to concentrate on retaliation if developing peace talks go through.
Coming from Tom Bradby's script, the conversations and intrigue unfold and disassemble the roles of each character like in his original novel. Owen is his usual steely eyed self until he's left out of an upcoming meeting to completely demolish the McVeigh cell. Once he learns there's another asset, all of the usual cool and bravado he oozes turns to horror. James Marsh takes this time to remind us that he was responsible for “Red Riding: 1980” with his slow zooms and repetitive, claustrophobic shots inside the MI-5 office. The McVeigh house feels like a prison cell for Colette, even as she wanders around in her bright red coat to drag eyes with her wherever she goes. Riseborough is haunting to watch, as her voice barely goes above a whisper and the guilt on her face feels like it'll come rushing out any moment.
“Shadow Dancer” really doesn't pick up until the revelation that Mac's boss, Kate (Gillian Anderson), played all sides and used Mac as a decoy. It sends him into the quiet, vindictive bastard territory that Owen should have never left from his days as the BMW driver. By then, Colette is fending off the IRA, MI-5 and her own family by pitting them against each other. Marsh keeps things relatively downplayed, save for a fascinating sequence of a gun moving through a funeral and a hand-held escape from British Army officers through the suburbs of Belfast.
With “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” marking a return to the genre that is in need of more films that don't just involve James Bond, "Shadow Dancer" is another efficient, intelligent entry. With a conclusion that arrives as an open-ended gut punch, you're not just left lingering with unanswered questions, but the sensation that James Marsh has delivered something truly special. [B]