Balancing family life and terrorism can be such a bitch. In Shadow Dancer, directed by documentarian James Marsh (Project Nim, Man on Wire) and adapted by Tom Bradby from his own book, the only semi-novel aspect of this microcosm of Ireland’s Troubles is that the central radical is a woman. Otherwise, it’s a rather dull and sometimes confusing telling of the typical good-guys-versus-bad-guys story and the anxiety that ramps up when a criminal is intimidated enough to cross the line.
The film opens with a flashback to 1973 Belfast that tidily explains what drives Collette (Andrea Riseborough) to commit violence in the name of the IRA. Fast-forwarding 20 years, Collette is now in London, planting a bomb on the Tube. She doesn’t get away with it, and is interrogated by MI5 agent Mac (Clive Owen), who already knows plenty about her, most crucially that her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson) are active terrorists, too, and that she has a young son (Cathal Maguire). Mac wants Collette to become an informant on her family, threatening her with imprisonment and the likelihood of never seeing her son again if she doesn’t comply. He promises to protect her. “If you make a mistake, I’m dead,” Collette says, repeating her request for a lawyer. Ultimately, though, she agrees to spy.
After Collette returns to her Belfast home, there is a tense moment or two, including one in which her brothers and their associates are planning their next attack. Collette excuses herself to go to the bathroom but really sneaks into a bedroom and uses the loudest rotary phone in the world (in 1993?) to clue in Mac. She’s nearly caught but the meeting continues. One ambush goes awry and someone is killed. Mostly, however, the film consists of Collette looking dour (though Riseborough, seen earlier this year in Oblivion, remains compelling) while too many characters are insufficiently introduced, leaving you unclear about what exactly is going on, who’s on which side, and who’s pressuring whom.
Shadow Dancer does at least end with a bang—a couple of them—with the film overall recalling 2010’s Animal Kingdom, in which a seemingly sweet matriarch turns lioness. But the comparison only reinforces what Marsh’s film is lacking.