Generally speaking, this is an off-year for James Bond. Recent reports suggest that Sam Mendes, widely acclaimed for rejuvenating the franchise with last year's "Skyfall," will return for another installment sometime next year, which means the next Bond movie will hit theaters…well, later. But if it's smart, elegant British espionage tales you crave, the fix arrives much sooner than that, with the release of James Marsh's "Shadow Dancer" in theaters this week.
While not designed to entertain on the level of style and spectacle that one expects from a Bond film, this tense period drama from the director of "Man on Wire" presents a far more credible take on the daring exploits of British agents. At its center, Belfast I.R.A soldier Colette (Andrea Riseborough) is captured by suave MI5 agent Mack (Clive Owen) after her failed attempt to detonate a subway bomb in 1993. In the mesmerizing negotiation that follows, Mack talks Collette into collaborating with British agents by spying on her own family in a vaguely defined plea bargain that might keep her out of prison so she can tend to her young child.
The strength of that promise is continually tested in ensuing scenes, as Collette struggles to push against family ties and Mack battles his bureaucratic overlords in an attempt to keep his promise to Collette. In the end, nobody wins, but that's not a spoiler so much as a result preordained by the stakes laid out in the opening sequence.
Marsh, best known for his documentary work, ably taps into a believable world of hidden regrets and murky politics at the root of the Northern Ireland conflict. The movie's prologue finds Collette, as a child, sending her brother out on an errand only to see him return minutes later with a moral bullet wound -- another casualty of the British occupation. With those personal stakes rooted deep in her psyche, Collete's worldview is entirely defined by the conflict, which makes her conundrum when forced to prioritize her son's safety into an involving scenario. But Marsh's especially adept at keeping the ideological grandstanding to a minimum. Instead, "Shadow Dancer" barrels forward with swiftly constructed suspense that transforms the premise into a high octane thriller.
It's fitting that Owen, one of the more interesting male stars working today, was once in talks to play Bond. In the role of Mac, he turns the idea of a slick agent into something more credible, trading fancy gadgets and shaken martinis for taut negotiations and messy chase scenes. To take the 007 comparison one step further, Collette is ostensibly the Bond girl in this equation, but unlike that sexist archetype, she's a fully realized creation whose reliance on Mac forces him to go beyond his sense of duty and possibly even go rogue.
There are plenty of great set pieces in "Shadow Dancer," most of which contain no dialogue. Collette's initial arrest -- which finds her wandering through a subterranean route before dropping off her weapon and then getting pushed into a vehicle by stern-faced authorities -- unfolds in long, immersive takes that push the scenario out of its political context and into a more universal realm of utter dread. It's not the last time. Like Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows," Marsh's movie portrays the conflict between underground rebels and authorities as tangential to a broader desire to simply keep going. That same mentality has informed the Bond franchise since its inception, even though it exploits those same feelings. Seeing as plenty of time will pass until the next installment, "Shadow Dancer" provides an ideal interlude by allowing us the opportunity to get real.
Criticwire grade: A-