Andrea Riseborough deserves to be one of 2012’s breakout stars. Her performance as Colette McVeigh is outstanding. Her character is practically quartered by the different forces in her life. Whether it’s her political beliefs, her family’s demands or the government’s immeasurable power, Colette squirms out of one grasp into another. She’s been given a lot of rope and is desperately trying not to hang herself.
The film’s tagline “Colette McVeigh – Mother, Daughter, Sister, Spy” doesn’t quite sum up the weight of her role. Colette is all of these things but she’s also saturated in conflict, having put herself into a situation that she can’t escape. And even when the world around her seems to be moving at a turtle’s pace, her mind is constantly racing—trying to think five moves ahead in a seemingly hopeless struggle against an endless antagonistic force. There is no one bad guy in her life. The “bad guy” is a conglomeration of forces that are so much larger than her and her family; larger than her political causes. And Riseborough communicates this through subtle movements, honest expressions, and underplayed dialogue.
Riseborough is joined by a talented group of supporting performers. Clive Owen plays Mac, the government agent who is trying to help Colette score a deal to protect her and her son. Owen is fine here. He gets the job done. There’s nothing special about his role and there’s nothing special about his performance. The same goes for Gillian Anderson, who plays Kate Fletcher, Mac’s cohort at the agency. It’s the actors who play Colette’s family and friends who really exude talent.
Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) gives the performance of his lifetime in Shadow Dancer. In one scene, he is tortured for secrets but refuses to give anything up. The scene draws on through submersion and gun threats and still he doesn’t say a word. He’s fantastic in this scene, and really, throughout the whole movie. Shadow Dancer’s lesser known actors really outshine its celebrities, putting together a terrific ensemble.
Director James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) is better known for his documentary work but his narrative feature work is certainly nothing to scoff at. The King is Gael Garcia Bernal’s most underrated film and Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 is a solid installment of the trilogy. Here, Marsh adapts Tom Bradby’s 1998 novel of the same name. The film is deliberately paced and guides the viewer through the twists and turns without too much convolution or confusion. The ending is tightly edited and absolutely works.
Shadow Dancer has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, the misuse of Owen and Anderson leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. And one particular scene where Owen and Riseborough awkwardly kiss, seemingly for no reason besides they’re in a movie and he’s a guy and she’s a girl and they have to kiss, should have been left on the cutting room floor. There are too many errors in judgment to confidently recommend Shadow Dancer but it should be viewed for the supporting actors and because Riseborough is a superstar waiting to happen.