Collette (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother, is arrested in London during an aborted IRA bombing. An MI5 officer, Mac (Clive Owen), offers her a deal: return to Belfast and spy on your IRA brothers or go to prison and lose your son. Betraying both her beliefs and her family, Collette returns home. Yet as the IRA grows suspicious of Collette and Mac takes greater risks to protect her, both find their lives at risk.

IRA snitch tale tells a familiar story.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Shadow Dancer begins with a seemingly clunky, obvious scene, but it’s only at a certain point in the movie, a suspenseful espionage thriller set in the final days of 'The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, that you realise what the sequence’s true meaning is. That’s typical of this austere tale, which is economical with information and gradually suggests that anyone who knows too much is of little use to those they pledge to serve and support.

The reality of betrayal is shown as a grim fear that soon turns into the conviction that your own death is looming

The first scene is set in Belfast in 1973, when a young girl, Collette McVeigh, gently coaxes her younger brother into running an errand for her father, bribing him with some coins to go down to the shop and buy cigarettes. It is the early days of the British army’s presence in Northern Ireland and contrast between the family inside and the intimations of strife outside are shattered when the boy is carried back in with a bullet wound, from which he dies as his horrified parents and siblings watch.

Twenty years later and the sister, Collette (Andrea Riseborough), is moving determinedly through the London underground, watching for surveillance as she clutches a bag. When she’s picked up after putting the bag in a walkway, as opposed to a tube carriage, she’s whisked off by the British intelligence services to face Mac (Clive Owen), an MI5 officer who specialises in turning and running informers. His proposition is simple: pass on information about her brothers, who are now important IRA members, or go to jail and have her young son sent into state care.

Director James Marsh, who is better known for his documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, is a concise filmmaker – some of his best shots are largely empty frames where the people look as if they can’t impose themselves on their environment. It’s in one of these that Collette makes her decision, and it’s only when she returns to the family home, and her mother (Brid Brennan), that you see her son, who resembles her late brother, and you know that protecting her child is now more important to her than striking back at the perceived British occupier.

Andrea Riseborough has survived a few difficulties of her own (she was in a movie directed by Madonna), and she keeps Collette teetering between surrender and defiance. Her own brother, Gerry (Aidan Gillen), is now a senior figure in the underground movement, but he knows he has an informer somewhere in his midst and his cold-blooded associate, Kevin (David Wilmot), is prepared to use any means to find the traitor. The reality of betrayal is shown as a grim fear that soon turns into the conviction that your own death is looming.

The film has a grainy, smoke-filled aesthetic, and together with the now dated spying paraphernalia of a pre-digital age (tape recorders and file rooms) it recalls Tomas Alfredson’s magisterial version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This picture, based on Tom Bradby’s adaptation of his own novel, doesn’t reach those heights because it deals with betrayal from the traitor’s perspective, and that world is locked into a grim struggle to lie with conviction and get through the day that keeps it tensely intimate.

Owen is his definitive self: rumpled, initially assertive, increasingly troubled. Having reeled Collette in, Mac starts believe that his operative has a different use in the eyes of his superior, Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson), and that the real risk to his informer is not her side but his. Marsh tries to get at the strange limits handler and informer can reach, but while Anderson does so visually, with one mournful look, the script can’t find the right words for Mac, and a sudden kiss with his Collette forces the issue.

Marsh improves the movie from the page to the screen. What’s shown is often more striking than what’s said, but in the perpetual subterfuge of Shadow Dancer that can’t fully distinguish a familiar plot from its numerous predecessors.