‘Shadow Dancer’ Review: A Thriller That's Too Smart to Thrill

That's a disappointment because there's a great deal of talent on display in this twisting tale of intrigue and betrayal set against the Irish troubles in Belfast

 

Why isn't Clive Owen a bigger movie star? He has the looks, the intensity and certainly the acting skills required.

Maybe it's that he always seems to be a little too bright, to be holding something back and too aware of the ambiguities in the characters he's playing.

Like its star, “Shadow Dancer” somehow just misses. It's an Anglo-Irish thriller that's almost too smart and subtle to actually thrill. On the smaller TV screen, it likely would draw you in. On a big movie screen, it fails to pop.

And that's a disappointment because there's a great deal of talent on display in this twisting tale of intrigue and betrayal set against the Irish troubles in Belfast in the early 1990s. (The movie is based on a novel by journalist Tom Bradby, who also wrote the screenplay.)

Fast-rising British actress Andrea Riseborough (“W.E.”) plays Collette, a single mother who's raising a young son in Belfast. Early in the movie, we see her wimp out on fully carrying out a planned IRA bombing in a London subway.

As she hurries from the scene, she is quickly apprehended and spirited away by a trio of men belonging to British intelligence. Their leader, Mac (Owen), has been watching her for months and recruits her as a mole by threatening that she'll be jailed and lose custody of her son.

He sends her back into the bosom of her family in Belfast, where both of her brothers (“Game of Thrones'” Aidan Gillen and "Harry Potter's" Domhnall Gleeson) are activists for the republican cause. As her brothers and their colleagues plan new operations against the British military and local authorities, Collette is torn between her old allegiances and her new one.   

Everyone here has multiple agendas and often divided loyalties. Betrayal is simply another way of saving one's own skin or scheme. Just because the republicans are on the same side or even Mac and his boss (Gillian Anderson) are doesn't mean that they won't double-cross each other, often with deadly results.

Director James Marsh, best known for his “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim” documentaries, does a capable job of keeping multiple plot strands on track and gets impressive performances from his major and supporting players.

Where he fails, though, is in jacking up suspense. This is a film that is almost too restrained and muted for its own good. When the big finish comes, it doesn't feel as if the moment has been properly built up to; it feels but more as if it were tacked on, a concession to the notion that this is a thriller and needs a fiery action scene.