Director: James Marsh
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Domhnall Gleeson, Aiden Gillen, Brid Brennan, David Wilmot, Gillian Anderson
Colette McVeigh, a single mother with connections to the IRA, is picked up and interrogated by Mi5 agents after failing to go through with mission to plant a bomb on the London Underground. She is given a choice between a long prison sentence and separation from her young son, or agreeing to share information on the IRA cell in which her brother is a key member. She reluctantly chooses the latter and Shadow Dancer – a title which won’t make sense until a revelation late in the film – then follows the relationship between Colette and her Mi5 controller, Mac, as she goes about the dangerous business of being an informant.
If you want to think about it in generic terms, Shadow Dancer would be categorised as a spy thriller. But you would have to throw out a number of your preconceived notions of what a spy thriller is. Like Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011, Shadow Dancer is a slow burning film with a steadily escalating tension rather than a roller coaster ride we expect from the majority of spy thrillers which follow the conventions established by James Bond films. Shadow Dancer moves at a very slow pace, to the point that it will be very off-putting for some viewers.
The performances are quite strong, even if the motivations for some characters are not always clear. In particular, Andrea Riseborough has earned some acclaim for her central performance as Colette. The key to her performance is the way that, while allowing us to see some of her anxieties and concerns, she manages to retain a moral mystery which means we never really know where she stands in terms of the larger conflict. Is she a believer in the IRA cause or obliged to play a role out of a sense of family duty or guilt? But I will admit to struggling with her character at times. I found her character so closed off, so internalised, that it became difficult to empathise with her.
Director James Marsh’s background is in documentary making – he won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2009 for Man on a Wire – and Shadow Dancer is a revealing picture in the way that it exposes the danger and volatility of life in Belfast in the 1990a. However, it fails to really give a sense of the socio-political context which explains that violence and volatility, and as a piece of entertainment it can be a really hard slog.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean
1. Argo (Ben Affleck)
People have to stop talking about Ben Affleck “being on a hot streak” or “enjoying a purple patch” as a director and accept that perhaps he is just a really talented director. Maybe he didn’t ride Matt Damon’s coattails to that screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting all those years ago like so many joked. Argo, Affleck’s third film, is the year’s best thriller and mixes moments of extreme tension with some great laughs. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are fantastic as the CIA’s Hollywood collaborators.
2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Scorsese was going to adapt a children’s book as his next project, but with David Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret it made perfect sense. Hugo was Scorsese’s love letter to the early cinema. A visually stunning film it is also one of the few films that have been made which have convinced me there may be some merit to 3D.
3. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Of course, Hugo was not the only film in cinemas this year which celebrated the early days of cinema. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist went one step further, engaging with the long-lost art of silent storytelling. This was such an ambitious project, but it was just so endearing and charming that it won people over. It also came out at exactly the right time for me as I’d recently been watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin films and my interest in silent cinema was peaking.
4. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
With MGM’s financial troubles we were forced to wait four years to see James Bond back on our screens after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, but boy was it worth the wait. Skyfall had everything you want in a Bond film, some great action sequences, a bit of humour, a fantastic villain. But on top of that, having a real filmmaker in Sam Mendes at the helm meant that the film also had an attention character development and an emotional depth that we’d never seen in a Bond before. Skyfall is not just a great Bond film, it is a great film.
5. Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
This was not going to be everyone’s cup of tea just because of the sheer volume of singing, but Tom Hooper’s ambitious film is a cinematic achievement, successfully translating one of the West End’s most successful and most tragic musicals to the screen. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway gave two of the year’s best performances in this gut-wrenching story of poverty and injustice, rebellion and redemption.
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The thing that struck me about this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel was its stillness and quietness. You feel like it is moving slowly, but when you stop and think about you realise that a lot has been happening. We are so used to seeing spy movies in the James Bond mould, that the stillness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is quite intriguing. An absolute all-star British cast led by a great performance from the chameleon-like Gary Oldman.
7. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Moonrise Kingdom is a Wes Anderson film through and through, which means some people will love it and others will hate it. Many of his usual collaborators are back with the key additions of Bruce Willis and Edward Norton. Anderson’s films are always deadpan and contain a touch of darkness, but this ups the ante on that. As always, the use of music, in this case Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams, is very clever. But for me, the sight of Harvey Keitel in shorts alone makes this film noteworthy.
8. The Muppets (James Bobin)
This may look like a strange pick alongside the other films on this list but The Muppets was a hard film not to love. No other film this year projected pure joy the way The Muppets did, and that should be celebrated. Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay showed a real love for these classic characters and, along with Bret McKenzie’s songs, found the perfect balance between nostalgia and contemporary comedy.
9. Looper (Rian Johnson)
There is nothing better than being genuinely surprised (in a positive way) by a film, and for mine Rian Johnson’s Looper was the surprise movie of the year. I saw it on a whim, expecting it to be a reasonably run of the mill sci-fi romp but what I got was the most original and interesting science fiction movie since District 9. The story of an assassin from two different periods in time going head to head with himself also engaged with that moral conundrum “If you could go back in time to when Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot was a baby, would you kill them to save the world future suffering?”
10. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh’s comedy isn’t going to appear on a lot of Top 10 lists but this is my list, dammit, so I’m including it. This sharply written comedy about a screenwriter who finds himself in a tough situation after his friend kidnaps the beloved dog of a local crime boss is a strong follow-up to McDonagh’s 2008 debut In Bruges. Yes there are some holes and some problems, but there are also some big laughs, with terrific comic performances from the always brilliant Sam Rockwell and the always quirky Christopher Walken carrying the film.
Not far off: The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan), Shame (Steve McQueen), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher), The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
The Worst Movie of the Year: Act of Valor (Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh). Not even close really. This military propaganda film in disguise (and not much of a disguise at that) proudly trumpeted the fact that all the major characters were played by real life Marines as though that were a good thing. It wasn’t.
Cinematic Highlight of the Year: Getting to see Steven Spielberg’s Jaws on the big screen as part of its high definition re-release. It was the movie which started the whole blockbuster movement, and which launched Spielberg into stardom, and it still holds up. Similarly, it was good to see Titanic on the big screen again. While the 3D transfer didn’t do much for me it was interesting to see that enough time has passed that we are all over our anti-Titanic bias and can accept that, while it has its faults, it is actually a very good film.