Recently the spy genre, that usually involved tuxedos, continental locations, and loads of explosions, has been brought crashing back down to Earth. Now even the new James Bond film will be taking place in London’s underground. Spies are going through a bit of a reality check, and Shadow Dancer is indeed so plausible and realistic it almost sends a shiver down the spine.
The film takes place in Belfast in 1993 during the troubles. IRA member Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is caught by MI5 while attempting to leave a bomb on London’s subway network. MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen) tells Colette that she can either go away to prison for 25 years, and therefore only see her young son on rare occasions, or she can go back to Belfast and spy on her IRA brothers (Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson). Colette chooses the later, but it’s not long before suspicions start to rise, and Mac thinks his boss (Gillian Anderson) is covering something much more sinister.
The most alarming thing about Shadow Dancer is how incredibly bland and grey it looks, and it’s not a bad thing. It is something the audience would expect when they see Colette return to her dull run down home in Belfast, but even the MI5 office where Mac works is the dullest shade of beige. Fortunately though it’s what is beneath the surface of the film that makes it such a treat. Director James Marsh takes a rare stab at directing fiction, after becoming best known for his documentary work such as Man on Wire. It is perhaps down to his work in documentaries that he is able to create such a chillingly realistic world, where it’s surprising ‘based on a true story’ isn’t on the credits.
Marsh certainly doesn’t sacrifice character development for a quick moving plot. It’s a very slow burning drama that takes it’s time, and it’s because of this it is able to be so riveting and tense. When Colette is leaving her bomb on the London underground, it is just a small part of a dialogue-free sequence that lasts around fifteen minutes. The atmosphere is so superbly crafted and tense that it has to be one of the best moments of British cinema in 2012.
Perhaps during the early stages there are a few too many questions being asked, but it eventually settles down into an easy and efficient rhythm. It may be about as beige as you can get, but under the surface it is an intelligent and emotionally complex spy drama. On this evidence, there’s no reason why James Marsh shouldn’t be offered a Bond film as soon as possible.
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