Made in Britain: Red Road
If there’s one genre of cinema/ literature that we’re the undisputed heavyweight champions of the world in then it’s urban misery. Well, either that or obnoxious costume drama. Going right back to the 19th Century, Britain has churned out countless examples of Kitchen Sink/ Urban Misery type drama. Dickens, although making a social point, wasn’t exactly light on it, then there was Sillitoe’s superb Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (made into an excellent film with Albert Finney), Look Back in Anger was the stage version, and as the 20th Century progressed, we managed to bang out literally hundreds of films that all revel in the squalor of working class unhappiness: This Sporting Life, My Name is Joe, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, The Hawk (ostensibly a serial killer film, but really about crap suburban life), Naked, Nil By Mouth, This is England and so forth. Basically, if you see the names Ken Loach, Shane Meadows or Mike Leigh attached to something then chances are it isn’t going to be a bundle of chuckles. If there’s one other thing that modern Britain is big on, aside from drunken chavs, then it’s CCTV: we are the most watched nation in the world, with in 2006 an estimated 4.2m cameras spying on us. That’s one for every 14 people, and our image is captured over 300 times every day. As if that wasn’t distressing enough, apparently 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras are to be found in Britain. One of the more recent additions to this depressing genre is Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, a film that combines misery with surveillance and, believe it or not, this one isn’t big on comedy either.
One thing these films all have in common, aside from being relentlessly grim, is that they are all usually nominated for some award or another. Red Road, was Britain’s entry at Cannes (I do believe it won a Grand Jury prize), and judging by the critical onanism out there over it, I’m nigh on certain that it must have scooped other awards elsewhere.
Proving to be quick on the update as always, Red Road is a British Dogme film. For those that don’t know what Dogme was, it comes from a manifesto penned in 1995 by Danish borehound Lars Von Trier. The goal was to pare down film making to focus on the core aspects such as story, character and theme. As if that isn’t farty enough, Von Trier (probably once he’d finished crying) and the director of Festen, Thomas Vinterberg, laid out the “Vow of Chastity”: 10 criteria that any film has to meet to be Dogme:
- Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
- The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
- The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.
Sounds like a bundle of laughs.
Interestingly, Von Trier has for all intents and purposes abandoned Dogme now (the twat), but others such as Arnold have picked up the reins with some glee. Red Road is the first entry in the Advance Party trilogy, with Rounding up Donkeys having being released as part two to huge critical and commercial indifference last year. The list of ridiculous rules that these films have to follow is astonishing, and I can’t be bothered to go through it here, because this is a review not an academic exercise, but believe me, it’s pretentious. Lone Scherfig presented the characters to Arnold, who was then obliged to write a script around them, but adhering to the ludicrously strict rules. This is hard-core arthouse.
Red Road tells the story of Jackie. Jackie is a CCTV operator in Glasgow, and an intensely lonely and isolated figure. She finds out through the wire that Clyde has been released from gaol early on probation. Abusing her position somewhat, she begins to stalk him through the cameras, and then eventually in person before luring him into the sack (in an astonishingly graphic scene), and enacting her revenge. I won’t spoil the rest of the film, but fuck me sideways is this one depressing.
The acting here is first-rate. Katie Dickie puts in an emotionally raw performance as the deeply damaged Jackie. Her perfunctory early sex scene is depressing in its mundane nature, and her increasing mania is housed behind a steely and stoic façade. Tony Curran is excellent as Clyde, bringing an animal physicality and frightening coarseness to proceedings. We really believe that this man would be crass enough to tell a near stranger that he wants to know “How your cunt tastes like”. The rest of the characters in Red Road aren’t memorable particularly, being interchangeable chavs. Or Neds rather, as this is Glasgow. However, it doesn’t matter because this is a film essentially about the loneliness of observation. Jackie doesn’t exist in any meaningful way in front of the camera. She’s broken and her time isolated from actual company has made her increasingly unstable.
This should also, believe me, be a deeply boring film. Nothing at all of any real interest happens for much of the run time. However, there’s a palpable atmosphere of dread that seeps off the screen; an air of foreboding and it is obvious to anyone that this can only end in tragedy. It’s also astonishingly creepy. There is no real doubt that Jackie is possibly psychotic and there is no real doubt that she’s in well over her head. That the film works so well on a slow burn is down to the super-tight direction: no shot is wasted and every single scene has meaning in the context of the film. This is a sparse, tense, brutal movie.
There’s no point me talking about the score, as obviously there isn’t one. There is a party where some chavs play Joy Division (aiming high on the cheery front), but that’s it. This is also true of the cinematography as Red Road doesn’t have anything in the way of lighting or clever shot composition. Rather the film is entirely shot through a hand-held (but non-jerky) camera, and this adds to the rawness and feeling of poverty that the movie emits.
I’m going to give this a high rating, because it is creepy and the revenge sequence is effective, not to mention that it is well acted etc. However there is one significant flaw to the film: Nothing happens for far too long. While the dread does build, in a similar slow-burn way to the superior Audition, the eventual pay-off doesn’t deliver the punch that we need it to. If anything, the finale of the film (the revenge takes place before this), is actually unsatisfying. I was left wanting some act of hideous violence, something to justify the time we’ve spent watching a crazy women operate a joystick (both of the rubber and penis variety).
Overall, Red Road is a hugely ambitious film. It’s also a hugely overrated one. That isn’t to say that it isn’t very good, because it reeks of quality, but there is an absence to it, an imponderable something that elevates this kind of film above the herd. This is, actually, the same problem that I have with all the Dogme movies: they’re cold and lack heart. No amount of effort or flair can make up for this, and what Red Road is at the end of the day is a brilliantly composed, stunningly acted, well written, soulless academic exercise. I give it 3 CCTV Cameras on a shitty overcast sky out of 4 because it is exceptional, but as good as it is, and it is effective, I have no desire at all to see the rest of the trilogy, and that, I believe, says it all.
I’ll return to this series with something a bit cheerier once the Birthday Series finishes at the end of August, but I’m damned if I know what.
Until next time,