Red Dust Review

The dust of the title is red as in blood soaked, this being a film about the torture and abuse inflicted on black South Africans during apartheid. The events of this time, specifically 1986, are seen from a modern perspective, however, with Red Dust adopting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a means of providing a year 2000-set courtroom drama. The TRC, as the opening titles explain, was a means of preventing civil war during the years post-apartheid by granting amnesty to those who would fully admit to their crimes during white rule. In this particular case the victim (though he refutes the term) is portrayed by Chiwitel Ejiofor, here playing a man who was brutally tortured over a 28 day period alongside a friend and comrade who is now believed to be dead, though the truth as come out.

Prior to Red Dust the TRC was subject to a 1999 documentary entitled Long Night’s Journey Into Day. This film focussed on four such testimonies, whilst also providing the social and political context, and was generally well-received, most notably for its recording from the various “trials”. The existence of such a piece, however, does provoke the question as to why it is also necessary to have a fictional (and therefore diluted?) equivalent and the answer can only be one of attracting a wide audience – after all, this is a BBC-financed production and therefore more than likely destined for a sizeable television audience. And yet whilst such intentions may make this a worthy film, it is also true that it suffers from being dull.

Despite its ’scope frame and heightened, sun bleached photography, Red Dust is a decidedly televisual affair (fittingly, perhaps, at it bypassed a theatrical showing). Much of its action is confined to the courtroom and shot in a conventional – not to mention bland – succession of medium shots and medium close-ups. Moreover, this technical simplicity is echoed in the screenplay itself (surprisingly from the pen of Edge of Darkness scribe Troy Kennedy Martin), with all of the characters being cut and dried to such a degree that they never move beyond two dimensions. All of the black characters are portrayed as noble and part of a loving, together community, whilst the whites – save for Hilary Swank’s lead and the “lefty lawyer” played by Marius Weyers – are forever seen as a bunch of sinister racist. Now this may in fact be a wholly accurate portrait, but in dramatic terms it renders the film redundant. The heroes and villains of the piece are so clearly defined (in a manner recalling a James Bond, in fact) that the eventual outcomes are never less than predictable; only the tiny details are able to hold any surprises.

There’s also a sense of compromise in the casting of Swank as a New York lawyer her returns to her homeland in order to aid the case. It’s a decision that not only feels incongruous in character terms, but also reeks of the need to include an internationally bankable star (and an Oscar winner, at that) as a means of securing a wide audience.

And yet it’s also difficult to escape the feeling that all of this has been done quite intentionally. It’s not impossible to consider the fact that the filmmakers have made Red Dust as simple as possible so that the key issues never become muddied or obscured. In this respect, it serves its purpose and until Long Night’s Journey Into Day makes itself known on DVD may well find an audience. If that situation ever changes, however, then its essential anonymity will become all the more pronounced.

The Disc
Red Dust looks and sounds fine on DVD. The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and DD5.1 sound mix have both been preserved and flawlessly presented. The former gets the anamorphic treatment and offers a superb recreation of the distinctive colour scheme, whilst the latter captures the dialogue and distinctive score without any difficulty. Indeed, in both cases it is hard to find fault.

The disc does disappoint, however, in terms of special features content as each of the extras is decidedly lacking. Director Tom Hooper’s commentary is a very dry affair and tends towards the descriptive and the most obvious of explanations. Indeed, only those interested in the location work are likely to remain engaged throughout its duration.

The collection of interviews are similarly underwhelming despite the vast majority of cast members being involved. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly who these pieces are aimed for, as for the most part the likes of Swank and Weyers are simply asked to describe Red Dust’s story or their characters – information that is readily available to anyone who has just sat through the film.

The two featurettes, which round of the package, amount to little more than B-roll footage of the film’s production and the recording of the soundtrack, respectively. Both are rather formless affairs, with no context, voice-over or interviews provided; what we get instead is hastily edited and therefore choppy and ultimately unenlightening.

As with the main feature, Red Dust’s extras are without optional subtitles.

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