When thinking of bigger releases from this year’s summer slate, the last type of picture that would come to mind in a year of Star Trek sequels and hopefully the first great Superman film (Donner’s first picture is fine, but that’s another debate) is a small, taut and performance-driven spy thriller from the man behind Man On Wire and one third of the brilliant Red Riding trilogy. And while it’s been available for a handful of weeks now on VOD from Magnolia, director James Marsh has crafted yet another fantastic entry in today’s modern spy genre.
Entitled Shadow Dancer, the film opens with a scene introducing us to a young girl named Colette McVeigh. Just minutes after sending her brother to go to a store, an order given to herself by her father, we see that he has been shot. Flashing forward, we see that she is now involved with the IRA, and has caught the eye of a government official named Mac. From there the twists and the turns come, culminating in a perfectly toned final act, all concluding in one of the more interesting thrillers since the film’s closest kin, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Based on a novel by author Tom Bradby, who also wrote the screenplay here, the script and the performances that come out of it are absolutely this film’s biggest stars. The film is led by the pair of Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen, and they give nearly perfect performances for this type of film. Owen is great here as Mac, taking his suave charisma and turning it on its head after a moment in the film turns him from a man on the inside to something entirely different. It’s a fantastic tonal shift that not only plays into his character, but helps shift the mood in the picture overall. Riseborough, however, is the single reason this film is an absolute must-watch. She gives one of this year’s stronger performances, bringing with her an intense energy that instead of manifesting itself as a cartoonish performance you’d find in any run-of-the-mill thriller, builds and builds to moments that feel genuinely intense and ultimately unforgettable.
One of the film’s many turns involves Mac’s boss, Kate, who is played by Gillian Anderson in one of the actress’ most interesting roles in years. She is a perfect foil to Owen’s Mac character, and adds a great deal of depth to the supporting cast. It’s a supporting cast that also includes the like of Aidan Gillen and Michael McElhatton, both turning in equally superb performances. This thriller is more about the drama of these interpersonal relationships than anything else, and with these performances being unanimously great, it’s an ensemble that makes this picture necessary viewing.
But Marsh is no slouch either. He’s gone this route before on a film like Red Riding: 1980, a film that features equally hazy photography, and is also just as breathtakingly tense visually. The equivalent of throwing your hand on a stove burner while slowly raising the temperature, the visual aesthetic here is small, intimate in many cases, and uses gorgeous photography to lure the viewer into each intense moment. Occasionally, Marsh will allow himself to expand his cinematic voice, and be it a long tracking shot or an explosion of violence, these moments never feel cheap or out of place, instead their full emotional weight is felt by the viewer. Fans of Tinker, Tailor will eat this picture up.
Very few films so far this year have been as tonally opposed to their other fellow theatrical releases as Shadow Dancer does in today’s landscape. With every other film in theaters either too visually bombastic for its own good or too emotionally vapid, James Marsh’s latest feature film feels like a picture from a bygone era. Driven by emotionally charged performances and led by a director who is as assured in his own claustrophobic style as anyone could imagine being, Shadow Boxer is truly something to behold. They just don’t make thrillers like this anymore.