Red Road Review

Red Road, the debut feature film from short-film Oscar-winning UK director Andrea Arnold, is an intriguing film from a number of aspects. Like the Dogme Manifesto or the Five Obstructions experiment, it’s part of a device by Lars von Trier to assist and stretch filmmakers into new areas of creativity. As part of the Advance Party concept, Red Road then is the first of a trilogy of films based around a recurrent set of characters created and developed by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen. While it will be interesting to see how the other two films develop the characters and the concept and see if they give each other subsequent depth and perspective in the manner of Lucas Belvaux’s One, Two, Three Trilogy, Red Road has more than enough elements and ideas of its own to make the whole concept a valid exercise.

The principal character of Red Road is Jackie Morrison, a Glasgow City Council employee who monitors the CCTV cameras dotted across the city. The lives of other ordinary people going about their daily business in drab inner-city housing estates makes for grim and depressing viewing, but for Jackie there is some comfort to be had following their little quotidian dramas from the safety of her viewing console. Her own life doesn’t seem to hold much fulfilment – she has distanced herself from her in-laws and her love life is restricted to irregular meetings with a boyfriend who is always on the road – but the arrangement and lack of commitment seems to suit her. One evening at work however Jackie observes a man and a woman at the back of a block of the Red Road flats – a housing complex for ex-prisoners - and believes she recognises the man as Clyde Henderson, someone who should be in prison doing a 10 year stretch. His unexpected return to the community, and the circumstances in which she first recognises him – roughly having sex with a young girl in the wasteland – sets off a strong reaction within her. She continues to monitor his activities each day from the surveillance cameras, but wishing to get closer to the man, she starts following him on the streets.

Red Road takes full advantage of its Glasgow locations, presenting a fascinating study of inner-city life, crime, deprivation and desolation. The fact that much of what goes on is seen through a video surveillance camera might seem like a point of social comment, but instead it adds a particular subjective perspective. The view of the outside world is seen through the eyes of one person, Jackie, who is remote and detached from it. The images on the banks of screens present Jackie with her own little running soap opera, which she is able to reach out and touch occasionally, but largely she remains detached from it, unable to intervene except through the third person assistance of the police force at the end of her telephone line. The film retains this very strong first-person perspective for a long period, the viewer never quite knowing just what has caused Jackie to withdraw from the world, from friends and family – but it clearly involves the ex-convict she has seen on her monitor. Without the viewer, or even Jackie fully understanding why, she knows that she must confront Clyde, who is the only person who can answer the questions that undoubtedly have forced her to withdraw into herself.

Red Road constantly challenges the viewer, not just in the mystery of what the connection is between Jackie and Clyde – that revelation the viewer can count on inevitably coming as part and parcel of the narrative structure – but less predictably in the manner in which Jackie approaches him. As well as the evident fear and distaste she has for the man, there is also some level of sexual attraction for his animalistic behaviour, which she has witnessed and reviewed on her video tapes. The complications of these conflicting emotional responses, simultaneously attracting and repelling, push Jackie to making that contact, a contact that is necessary to bring her back into the world. Without giving anything away, the ultimate message of the film might not sound that profound or enlightening – “Shit happens everyday. That’s life.” – but it entails a vital coming to terms with the past that everyone must face up to, no matter how painful or difficult that may be.

Red Road is released in the UK by Verve Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

Red Road makes use of very strong colour schemes and lighting that enhance the whole feel and tenor of the film - it may even be a little too expressionistic in this respect, but the video transfer on the DVD is everything it should be. It handles the cool cathode rays of the video surveillance control centre that represent Jackie’s emotional state, along with the dark shadows and vivid nausea-inducing colours that swamp Clyde’s high-rise apartment. The drab exteriors of the housing estates are similarly well represented, as are the on-screen video images. Really, there’s nothing to fault here unless you are viewing this through a progressive display, where the interlacing of the transfer is more evident. Largely however, the image is clear and sharp, the colours are vivid and naturalistic, shadow detail is good, blacks are well-saturated, there’s not a mark or dustspot on the print and not a flicker of digital artefacts, nor halo of edge-enhancement.

The audio track is similarly clear and dynamic, though only available in Dolby Digital 2.0. I don’t know if a surround track exists for the film, but the stereo mix works fairly well. Dialogue is clear and strong and any difficulties here are more than likely down to the thickness of the authentic Glaswegian accents (Martin Compston in particular).

It’s fortunate then that the DVD very helpfully comes with optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired. And an Audio Descriptive track. Nice one.

The extra features provide only limited information on the production. There is a little said about the Advance Party project that this film is a part of, but not a great deal of indication about why is was initiated, nor how it is going to progress. What is included here is a very atmospheric, dialogue-free Trailer (1:59) and Interviews. Andrea Arnold (6:09) talks about adjusting to the scale of feature film making, her contribution to the writing and on working in Glasgow. Other selected sound-bite interviews are conducted with the cast – Kate Dickie (2:04), Tony Curran (1:26), Nathalie Press (1:09) and Martin Compston (1:22), each of them talking briefly about their character and how it was working on the film. A Behind The Scenes (1:04) shows a brief and not terribly interesting look at the filming of two scenes.

Andrea Arnold’s debut feature film is an intriguing start to the Advance Party series of films, but Red Road works equally well as a standalone film in its own right. The director may be taking on what are predefined characters, but she fully makes them their own, pushing them – and her actors - to their limits, successfully depicting their situation through an environment which both defines their actions and expresses their inner lives. Like Keane, also released around the same time last year, Red Road is very subjective in how it sticks closely to one person and examines from their perspective their struggle to come to terms with a terrible incident in their past. This might not always be a pleasant experience for the viewer, but it is compelling nonetheless. Verve Pictures present a strong DVD release for Red Road, on a disc that is (thankfully) not overburdened by analysis, but solid on the all-important audio/visual aspects of the film.

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