After losing her younger brother due to political crossfire, Colette McVeigh’s (Andrea Riseborough) life remains steeped in violence and uncertainty when we rejoin her in 1993. After being arrested for a failed bomb plot on the London Underground, Colette is given a lifeline in Mac (Clive Owen), who offers to protect her son if she cooperates as an informant.

With barely a word spoken in the film’s opening and coolly tense sequence, director James Marsh ensures we know what to expect in regards to pace and tone for the remainder of SHADOW DANCER. Though comfortable in its silence – Colette refuses to speak to Mac without a lawyer – the quiet leaves you restless and unnerved, especially in the absence of Dickon Hinchliffe’s stunning score.

Pulling you in with her big eyes and surprisingly well-hidden emotions, Riseborough faces a big challenge over whether to go big or small, with her minimal display a welcome choice. Aware that death is potentially around every corner and that her son is emotional collateral, she is completely trapped by her brothers’ political involvement in a place where family is paramount – even when her brother Gerry (Aidan Gillen) is showing her son how to ride a bike there is a sense of constant control.

Surprisingly, Clive Owen’s presence is rather sporadic, working very much to the film’s advantage by focusing on Colette’s story. He also plays it entirely straight so as to not snatch the film from under Riseborough’s feet and ensuring he remains a trustworthy and mostly realistic presence.

With news footage spliced in for authenticity and details such as checking under cars for bombs, SHADOW DANCER always remains quietly tangible, even if it may have been a superior and very effective mini-series. Yet there is something about the slow burn aspect that is incredibly rewarding, with the played down style working extremely well to build up to some of the awful things that we witness before the credits.


Starting with an aimless meander through woods near his home, Coggie (Michael Coventry) is handed on a plate to us as a bored teenager who would far rather dissect wasps and mark himself with razor blades than spend time with his family or do anything remotely productive.

With school breaking up and a long summer ahead, Coggie and friend Macca (Paul Bamford) find themselves drawn to neighbourhood wild child, Ste (Tom Pauline), in a bid to keep their boredom at bay. But it’s in this boredom that the film seems to trip itself up, with it hard to tell whether the drawn-out narrative is hoping to reflect this emotion or if it’s simply reveling in self-indulgence.

With the idea of parental negligence made a little too obvious, SMALL CREATURES suffers greatly from a disproportionate amount of cookie cutter characters, with Coggie the only one you remotely empathise with during the rather painful one hour and twenty-seven minute running time. While the three boys have varied natural ability and a lot of their conversations about everyday life are very real, it is only Coventry who emotes anything beyond an average episode of Waterloo Road.

With the boys paid to do other people’s dirty work by spraying graffiti over a wall at the start, we are immediately told that this is a way of life and not something they can escape from. However, they never seem to want to achieve anything above vandalism and smoking weed, making them very hard to care for, and even though we’re force-fed the idea that this is nature vs. nurture and all to do with circumstance, director Martin Wallace never delivers a valuable or interesting point in this poor attempt at social commentary.

With the horrendously farfetched and unexciting final third appearing to be from a completely different film, the need for a more consistent narrative becomes almost unbearable in its tedium. Never a touch as threatening as it believes, SMALL CREATURES is completely unmemorable.

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  • I thought I’d add a couple of things to your review.

    The film was made for fifty thousands pounds and was pieced together over two years, outside of any conventional framework for film production. At Edinburgh, it played in the Michael Powell award strand, which (like the multimillion pound budget, BBC backed, Shadow Dancer) means it was nominated for Best British feature and Best Performance. Pretty good for a £50k film.

    You state in the review of the three 14-year-old leads – “they never seem to want to achieve anything above vandalism and smoking weed, making them very hard to care for”. The main struggle of the protagonist is to stay out of trouble when there is so little else on offer. A dilemma faced by many young people in the UK today.

    Your claim that there’s a ‘nature vs nurture’ thing going on in the film is groundless. How can I be so sure? Because I made the film. It’s played at various fests around the world and I’ve never heard anyone one else make the nature vs. nurture interpretation…… Except another reviewer, Patrick Gamble, with whom you hung out with at Edinburgh and subsequently engaged in twitter moan about the film.

    Then you, Mr Gamble and another inexperienced writer (Jamie Neish, seemingly another of your Edinburgh new friends and also party to the twitter moan) all write scathing reviews that fail to give any real context of a film that is clearly not the kind of thing intended or destined for general release or mainstream audience.

    Meanwhile, in Time Out, Trevor Johnston decides to take the all-together more constructive approach, when he cites the film in rather positive terms in his roundup of the Edinburgh film festival.