There's a lot to admire about this film – the atmosphere, the acting and the tension that is created. Clive Owen is even quite good. But it falls short of excellence in the final analysis.
It's the early 1970s. The IRA campaign on mainland Britain is well under way. A young Irish woman (Andrea Riseborough) is in a tube station, when she is arrested and then interrogated by MI5 guy Clive Owen. He tells her that the only chance of survival for her – and more importantly for her son and family – is to become a double agent, and after a good deal of reluctance she agrees. She returns to Northern Ireland, where she is always under the gaze of family and IRA colleagues, while Owen has to manage the treacherous internal politics of his world, especially given the duplicitous tendencies of his boss, Gillian Anderson.
There's no question that Andrea Riseborough is one of the most talented young actresses in this country. Anyone who can light up a film as dire as W.E. is a special talent. In the central role of Colette McVeigh, she is outstanding as a young woman caught between conflicting loyalties and pressures. Her predicament, and her response to it, are entirely believable. We see her holding out against the inexorable logic of Owen's proposition, and then, when she has decided that she has no choice, we witness her terrifying negotiation of the minefield of the republican world she moves in. She is interrogated, mistrusted and watched, yet still has to fulfil her obligations to the British. One of the qualities of the film is that it manages to show the pressures that both sides in the conflict are under, without suggesting that one is more virtuous than the other.
Director James Marsh is best known for his documentary Man On Wire, but he has made one feature before, a neglected gem called The King, in which Gael Garcia Bernal persecutes William Hurt and his family. Shadow Dancer is a step forward from that film in terms of ambition, and I enjoyed it while I was watching. But somehow I never completely bought into it. It is hard to make films about the Troubles in Northern Ireland – neither The Boxer, or Hidden Agenda, for example, are as good as they should be – for reasons which I can't put my finger on. But this is a good film, and is worth watching if only for Riseborough's performance.