The pregnant pause is one of the more useful items in a director’s toolbox for heightening drama and tension. One can’t have just nonstop chatter and explosions, after all, no matter what the oeuvre of Michael Bay might argue to the contrary. But like any tool, it can be overused. Case in point: James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, a smartly cast but drearily inactive IRA thriller that tries to be all pregnant pause. This constant sidestepping manner means that by the time the credits roll, viewers understand as little about the characters on screen, and the morality of their actions, as they did when the film began.
Like any sensible story about terrorism, Shadow Dancer is at heart about revenge and what happens once it has outlived its initial purpose and taken on a life of its own. We open in Belfast, 1973, where young Collette is busy playing and trying to avoid being sent out for smokes for her father. Oblivious to the sound of armored vehicles and shouting men outside, she talks her little brother into going out instead. In short order, his bloodied corpse is rushed into the apartment by a neighbor, and Collette sees a look in her father’s face that she’ll never forget.
Cut to twenty years later, the London Underground. The older Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is part of a bomb plot but gets snagged by the police before anything happens. Dumped into a room with MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen), Collette gets offered one of those take-it-or-leave-it opportunities: Go back to Ireland and inform on her IRA accomplices or be left to the mercies of the Queen’s justice system. With a little boy at home and what seems to be a shaky devotion to the cause, Collette’s acquiescence is preordained.
The wrinkle here is that once she’s back in bleak old Belfast—it’s a film of grim, smoke-clouded interiors and pale, washed-out people—some of the people she’s supposed to spy upon are her brothers Gerry (Aidan Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson). None of them have given up their fury over what happened back in 1973, even though by this point peace negotiations are moving steadily forward. At least, that’s what we’re meant to infer; at no point is there any talk about why they’re fighting or what for, beyond some bellowing by the more radical Gerry about not selling out.
Theoretically, TV journalist Tom Bradby’s screenplay (from his novel) should make for a crackerjack thriller. With an utterly unprepared Collette suddenly forced to inform upon her own family, all to keep her young son safe, while being surrounded by trigger-happy fanatics who would just as soon put a bullet in her, the nail-biting possibilities should be thick on the ground. But Bradby’s writing barely scratches the surface of his characters, much less digs into them. The lack of almost any credible drama is particularly shameless, given the subject matter.
Marsh, who has proven to be much more accomplished in nonfiction film (Man on Wire, Project Nim) than in fiction (Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980, the weakest film of the trilogy), doesn’t help matters any by eliciting flat performances out of just about everybody present. Owen and Riseborough should make for a smoldering pair, but their brooding proves to be disappointingly one-note. Riseborough in particular is given little to work with, and so spends her time wandering about with a pensive look on her face. Curiously, about the only actor here who makes much of an impression is the normally taciturn Gillian Anderson, turning in a cracklingly starchy performance as Mac’s superior, who appears to be playing her own game.
Bradby concocts a decent twist near the end, but it doesn’t come nearly soon enough to save this moribund thriller. The filmmakers put too much faith in the mere threatening presence of bombs and police and guns to push their story along. But with characters this underdeveloped, all the explosions in the world wouldn’t be enough.