The new film from James Marsh, whom most cinemagoers know as a documentary-maker, is a tightly packed and wonderfully shot espionage-thriller set in Belfast and London in the early 1990s. Marsh rose to prominence in 2008 with Man on Wire, a suspenseful documentary about the daring French funambulist Philip Petit centred on his extraordinarily well-planned high-wire act between the World Trade Center buildings in 1974, soon after they had been completed. Prior to 2008, Marsh had made several documentaries—notably Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)—and two works of fiction: The King (2005), and the middle film in the Red Riding trilogy, In the Year of Our Lord 1980. His Project Nim (2011) examined the fate of a chimpanzee who was raised as if he were a human. Man on Wire functions as both a love-letter to the Twin Towers—those great, now lost, architectural paeans to capitalism—and as a vertigo-inducing record of Petit’s exhilarating, illegal feat. Marsh creates a similarly taut mood in Shadow Dancer, though on a considerably smaller scale and in an obviously different register.
The film, atmospherically shot by Rob Hardy (Boy A; the Sigur Rós film Inni), is adapted by the journalist and novelist Tom Bradby from his 1998 book; the plot centres on Collette (Andrea Riseborough), whom we first meet as a teenager in 1973, in the film’s evocative, shocking Belfast-set preamble. Skip forward two decades, and a spectacular wordless sequence, incorporating a few Dardennes-esque following shots, shows Collette attempting to place a bomb in the London Underground. Like her brothers, who are high-up in the IRA, she’s become fiercely loyal to the Republican cause, having grown up surrounded by a seemingly immutable anger. Her aborted/intentionally foiled bombing ends in her being arrested and soon interviewed by an MI5 officer (Clive Owen). He uses a pseudonym with Collette most of the time, and only reluctantly gives her his real first name: Mac. In order that she be allowed to see her son grow up, Mac sets her up as an informant; a game of double agents and double-crossing (on all sides) ensues, expertly played out against a backdrop of palpable, politically charged violence.
The film’s inescapable tension is comparable to that in Justin Kurtzel’s Snowtown, but, while terror is central to both films, Marsh never opts for the kind of nauseating torture-porn that appeared, solely for its shock value, at the core of Kurtzel’s film. The key performances from Riseborough and Owen are terrific; the American actress Gillian Anderson, portraying an MI5 agent with some apparent seniority over Mac, sports a near-faultless English accent. The score, by Dickon Hinchliffe (Winter’s Bone; Cold Souls), is in places enjoyably reminiscent of AIR’s work on The Virgin Suicides, while Hardy’s photography, which incorporates dizzying canted angles, plays with thinly selective focus, and uses every opportunity to show figures against blown-out window-frames—literally, shadows dancing—is extraordinary: easily some of the best of the year. Marsh has in the past proven brilliantly adept at examining true history; his new film shows his abundant skill at telling almost-true stories inspired by real events.
Shadow Dancer is in cinemas now.