Shadow Dancer

Monday February 13th 2012

Ten films in and the Berlinale has yet to reach the stratospheric heights that I may have unwisely expected from it. Competition entries range from the provocative (Brilliante Mendoza’s hostage anti-thriller Captive) to the formulaic (French period drama Farewell My Queen) but are uniformly ‘difficult’, testing patience even at relatively short run times. Other strands also seem filled with arduous arthouse endurance tests which promise (but may not necessarily deliver) great rewards to those who stick with them to the bitter end. So given the circumstances, it’s hardly damning with faint praise to say that Shadow Dancer is entirely, unequivocally, 100% not boring.

Man on Wire director James Marsh whips out all the muted colours and grainy film stock at his disposal for this largely apolitical IRA thriller, starring human muppet Clive Owen alongside perpetual next-big-thing Andrea Riseborough. It’s always been a little hard to tell whether the hype surrounding Riseborough was warranted — sorting the wheat from the chaff in movies like Brighton Rock, W./E. and Magicians is a difficult process — but here she emerges as a fully formed leading lady, as you can see in this hastily prepared graph:

Even Clive Owen handles himself well in the relatively undemanding role of the hard-bitten (isn’t he always?) MI5 operative whose relationship with Riseborough’s IRA informant Colette exposes a mysterious government plot known only as (wait for it) “Shadow Dancer”. Quick! Close-up on the computer screen! Pull in on Clive’s confused face! And … scene.

From there, Shadow Dancer delights in the refreshingly unpredictable game of cat and mouse that plays out between Owen and Riseborough, themselves backed up by a solid supporting cast including Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson (a.k.a. one of the Weasley brothers, I forget which). The early 90s setting is equally convincing, thanks not only to great production design but also Marsh’s era-appropriate direction. You’ll know it when you see it.

And if this fast-paced British thriller is still sounding a little too frivolous for an IMPORTANT INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL like Berlin, then rest assured that the whole thing’s got moral ambiguity coming out of its ears. No mean feat considering Clive Owen’s recent track record.