'The very end sees two people washing their hands, but are either of them really about to leave things alone and get away clean? The little bits may be minor but in Shadow Dancer they are also near-perfect.'
Released with very little fanfare (it opened on 166 screens in the UK but took just £200k on its first weekend), the true level of how forgotten Shadow Dancer has already become is apparent when a Google image search for it returns at least as many results for a 1989 Sega Master System game of the same name, as it does for James Marsh's downbeat and careful film.
Part of the reason for this may well be that Shadow Dancer feels like it is at least ten years too late. Where 2003 might have been an interesting and ideal time to explore the Irish troubles of the early 1990s - as fracturing peace threatened to break out and paramilitary units persisted with non-sanctioned terror campaigns - 2013 feels as though Marsh has come to the artistic catharsis a little late.
Whilst that may explain the apparent disinterest on most audiences' part, let it take nothing away from the sterling work on display here, most notable in the final third, which is clearly difficult to discuss without revealing the numerous pivots Marsh finds in Tom Bradby's screenplay of his own novel. Let it be known though that, whilst Shadow Dancer appears to be slipping into cliché and genre conformance, its actual finale subverts the vast majority of Spy Drama contrivances, and certainly spears one of the worst ones.
Before that, Marsh shows himself to have a level, patient and mature directing head on his shoulders, carrying over clear echoes of his well-conceived Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire. The two opening segments - one showing a flashback to Colette's (Andrea Riseborough) past, the other her first meeting with Mac (Clive Owen) - are both exercises in producing tension from very little shown or said on screen. At the end of the second segment, Colette changes from dowdy beiges and blues to a bright red show-coat. The game is now on, and there is potential for blood on everyones' hands.
Throughout, Marsh's quality at getting little subtextual things right shows through again and again. The very end sees two people washing their hands, but are either of them really about to leave things alone and get away clean? Echoing her meeting with Mac, Colette again turns down the coffee offered to her, seemingly innocently, by IRA troubleshooter Kevin (David Wilmot), whilst an associate prepares a plastic killing room next door. The little bits may be minor but in Shadow Dancer they are also near-perfect.
Near perfect too are Owen and Riseborough, both compelling screen presences with heavyweight support by Aidan Gillen (lurking in pubs) and Gillian Anderson (lurking in wood-panelled kitchens). It's coming on eight years since Owen could have been James Bond and in that time he's shown firstly just why he could have taken the spy in grubbier directions and secondly just why it's a brilliant thing that he didn't. Observe this, Children Of Men, Inside Man and The International as a plethora of reasons why not having Owen as Bond is not the same thing as not having Owen the interesting and dependable Thriller-presence. Riseborough meanwhile shows off a rare ageless quality that few actors of her generation have. Here she could easily be early-twenties or at the wrong end of her thirties. In another film you can imagine her passing as a college student.
The two leads clearly hold the interest but Marsh co-ordinates them perfectly through a dark Drama, with only a handful of miss-steps. Inevitably you missed this in 2012. Don't do the same in 2013.