I’ve been having a few conversations recently about how Scotland’s current cultural reliance on grim and gritty urban (and increasingly rural) fiction has reached the point of overkill. That particular alcoholic and violent shark has been well and truly jumped. If Scotland’s cultural palette becomes brighter as well as broader then that is surely a positive thing, but we should be wary of endorsing a form of cultural positive discrimination. Some of the great Scottish art comes from the grim aesthetic. In film alone we have recently had NEDS, 16 Years of Alcohol and Ratcatcher all of which deserved to find an audience. One of the best films of the last 10 years, Red Road, was set in one of the more notorious areas of Glasgow, specifically the Red Road flats from which the film takes it’s name, and it’s the perfect setting.

Sometimes a film comes along that unsettles the audience and makes them face how far they would go in their own reaction to tragic events. By confronting people with a terrible scenario Red Road asks difficult questions in the most honest and non-sensational manner imaginable. This is not about the revenge of the vigilante, or about portraying a justifiable revenge fantasy. Its refusal to bow to sentimentality is what sets it apart from other movies that deal with similar themes. There is a pivotal sex scene which is central to the film, but is never sensational or exploitative. It is a scene which sums up the film as it reminds us just how different things could have been in the hands of a different director.

The film’s grim backdrop makes for a fairly blank canvas and the cast step up to give often unbearably emotive performances. Everything is contained and repressed. The central role of Jackie is taken by Kate Dickie, and the film depends on her performance. The audience needs to feel that her actions, while shocking, are understandable or at least believable. Dickie exudes pain and fragility, which makes her determination to follow through her plans even more of a struggle. Her course of action is followed out of a sense of despair, and is obviously against her character. It’s a raw performance, one that suggests that Jackie is only just surviving. It reminded me of Joy Stone in The Trick is to Keep Breathing in that both woman are existing while barely living. Dickie was widely and rightly praised for her performance. It makes the film.

Tony Curran has never been better as he is here, and considering the films and TV he’s been involved in that’s a bold claim. Recently seen as Vincent Van Gogh in Doctor Who, and soon to appear in CSI, Curran is one of Scotland’s most underrated actors. Not that I think he’ll overly care, he has been working solidly since leaving the RSAMD and nothing looks like changing that anytime soon. He has been in some of the largest grossing films of the last 20 years including Gladiator, Pearl Harbour, Miami Vice and TV series such as 24, Medium and The Mentalist. In Red Road he plays Clyde with whom Jackie becomes obsessed. Clyde is a man who is dealing with his own guilt, and is oblivious in terms of how the story unfolds. It’s a performance that matches that of Dickie as Curran keeps things understated. These are two broken people whose lives are intrinsically linked.

The supporting cast includes Martin Compston and Natalie Press (who is in the forthcoming Island see You Have Been Watching (Glasgow Film Festival Spec…). They have small, but important, roles to play. They are younger and happier than the older characters, and although life has obviously not been easy for either of them, it has yet to kick them around like it has Clyde and Jackie. The scene where they open the windows in the high rise flat, and are knocked back by the wind in their faces is one of the few positive scenes, one where the characters problems are forgotten as they give themselves over to the moment. This is Red Road‘s trailer:


The film makes interesting points about watching, privacy, revenge, redemption and obsession. All of these are brought together to move the story along and director Andrea Arnold is as much of a star of Red Road as Kate Dickie. She obviously knows how to direct actors, but it is the confidence in how the film is shot that reveals her real talent. The use of CCTV footage, the use of shadows and darkness in and around the flats, and the grey tones of Glasgow found in concrete and sky reflect the overall feeling of the film, and are examples of a director who understands how to create a mood. Also, she is brave in her decision to keep the audience in the dark about exactly why Jackie acts as she does for most of the film, which means that we are unsure where our sympathies should lie. Arnold refuses to make it easy for anyone, and the film is all the better for it. Since Red Road she has directed the excellent Fish Tank and her next feature is an adaptation of Wuthering Heights which will be a must see. Arnold is promising to be one of the most exciting film-makers around.


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Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae.

Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.