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Red Road

Studio: Tartan Films
Director and screenwriter: Andrea Arnold; Starring: Kate Dickie, Tony Curran, Martin Compston and Natalie Press

Apr 27, 2007 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Red Road, the debut feature by English director Andrea Arnold, is a fascinating, skillfully directed drama that operates within the framework of a thriller, but the film is so methodically paced during its first two acts, by the time the mysteries begin to unfold, the thrill is gone.

Kate Dickie plays Jackie, a closed-circuit television operator working in northern Glasgow. Cloistered in a darkened office with only a few co-workers, she sits before a bank of television monitors and controls surveillance cameras that allow her to selectively zoom in on whatever activity might seem suspicious on the nearby streets. Under her gaze are the surrounding areas of the Red Road flats, a real-life housing complex whose high-rises were the tallest residential buildings in Europe when they were constructed in the mid-‘60s. Currently, the buildings are scheduled for demolition, and Arnold exploits the dilapidated look of its nearby spaces to dramatic effect. If Jackie witnesses a street stabbing, or people lingering about where they shouldn’t, she has the police at her beckon.

One day Jackie thinks she recognizes a man exiting one of the buildings. Her relationship to this man (Tony Curran) initially is not revealed, but we learn that he has served time in jail and can assume that he has perpetrated some sort of crime against Jackie. She lives a solitary, almost silent life that’s interrupted by occasional, passionless afternoon quickies with a fellow surveillance officer. But the discovery of this man from the past consumes her and leads to some inexplicable, even dangerous, behavior. She calls him on the phone, tracks his whereabouts with the cameras, and eventually begins to inhabit the same spaces before he finally notices her.

All this is captured with great care and precision by Arnold and director of photography Robbie Ryan. Shot digitally, they cast a dark, ominous mood on much of what Jackie observes, and the video surveillance shots, especially when they’re manipulated—rewound and replayed—by Jackie, are downright eerie. Arnold approaches Lynchian creepiness by accentuating Jackie’s intense voyeurism with an industrial drone on the soundtrack. There are other filmic influences at work as well, perhaps the most obvious being Rear Window and Blowup. But those films had more of an entertainment appeal. Rear Window had Grace Kelly and a potpourri of mini-dramas transpiring across the courtyard from Jimmy Stewart. And Blowup had the Yardbirds and Jane Birkin’s landmark pubic hair. There’s no glamour in Red Road, nor any early flourishes of excitement. It’s a slow boil. That said, there’s a good chance that you will not see a more intense sex scene in cinemas this year than the one in Red Road. It’s a bracing sequence, but Arnold goes overboard on the soundtrack, abandoning realism far too late in the game. At 113 minutes, Red Road spends so many minutes tuning in to the doldrums of working-class living that it draws out the intended suspense and puzzlement past the point of engagement.

Red Road is the feature film debut for Dickie, who has a background in theater and comedic television (BBC). Sleater-Kinney fans might see a resemblance to drummer Janet Weiss at times, but Dickie owns the screen with a tantalizing performance that suggests, without much dialogue, that there are shady thoughts and intentions blazing in Jackie’s head. Tony Curran as Clyde, the figure from Jackie’s past, is a carnal and menacing force. Natalie Press (My Summer of Love) and Martin Compston round out the cast.
These four actors will reprise their roles for two more films, to be directed by two other filmmakers, because Red Road is the first of a trilogy for The Advance Party project. The Advance Party was born out of discussions between the Glasgow Film Office and partners of Zentropa Productions to initiate a series of signature films by rising directors. Lars von Trier (who else?) came up with the concept of making three films using the same actors and characters, but to be written and directed independently of the others. Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen (who wrote the screenplay for After the Wedding), invented the initial characters, including Jackie. Andrea Arnold and the other directors, Morag Mackinnon (Glasgow) and Mikkel Norgaard (Copenhagen), were offered the films near the end of 2003. Arnold, who had already been picked to write and direct the first film of the trilogy (Red Road), won an Academy Award in 2005 for Wasp, a live action short that also starred Natalie Press. The Glasgow Film Office chipped in addition financing funds for Red Road shortly thereafter. Red Road entered competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 and won the Prix du Jury (Jury Prize).

Although it finishes with an emotional wallop, Red Road, on its own, is not a must-see. Arnold makes a strong impression for a feature debut, and the tension that leads up to Dickie and Curran’s first scene together is almost worth the wait, but we’ve seen these themes and concepts before, not only in Rear Window and Blowup, but also in Kieslowski’s work. In fact, cut down to about an hour, Red Road could have been a worthy Decalogue chapter. A catch, though, is that this is a film that could grow richer with more context and repeated viewings, especially if the second film of the Advance Party trilogy plays along and complements it. Upon first viewing, there are too many question marks during the snail-paced first two thirds of Red Road to make it riveting. But being able to fill in those blanks, knowing exactly what Jackie’s objectives are and why she’s taking such risks, could make a substantial difference.

Author rating: 6/10

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