In a year that has seen the Queen of England press flesh with a former IRA commander, a thriller recreating the bad old days of the Troubles seems ill-timed at best.
Yet though the political backdrop is integral to James Marsh’s engrossing study of a female mole spying from within a paramilitary family, the story suits any conflict where loyalties are divided and betrayal is rife.
After a ’70s prologue that explains how Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) came to be radicalised, Shadow Dancer zips forward to 1993 to find her attempting to plant a bomb on the London Underground.
When the operation is thwarted and Colette arrested, this single mother is offered a stark choice – 25 years behind bars or a return to Belfast as an MI5 informant.
Her contact is Mac (Clive Owen), a case officer who comes to feel and care for his reluctant field agent.
Yet when another IRA op is foiled the finger of suspicion begins to point in Colette’s direction, something Mac’s ruthless superior (Gillian Anderson) has no problem with at all, due to shadowy reasons of her own.
With Tombstone Features Owen on one hand and the no less readable Riseborough on the other, getting a handle on the two leads is an initially tricky proposition. But without actively courting our empathy the latter ends up winning it anyway, via a canny combo of grace, guts and guile.
Given his experience in documentary, it’s no surprise Marsh makes the universe Colette inhabits appear chillingly authentic. The Man On Wire man negotiates the various levels of subterfuge with a forensic eye for telling detail.
That eye extends to the visual palette, muted hues and murky browns painting a dourly forbidding landscape against which Colette’s crimson raincoat stands out like blood on snow.
Result? An expertly calibrated drama confirming Marsh’s status as one of Britain’s most formidable filmmakers. Somebody give him a Bond.
Not unlike Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this slow-burn saga takes its time. But the attention it calls for pays off down the line thanks to riveting performances and tense, water-tight plotting.
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