Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Report From The London Film Festival

Please note that my thoughts on Red Road contain significant plot spoilers. I really hate doing this, but it's impossible to convey my judgement on the film without discussing the plausibility of its conclusion.

The opening weekend of the London Film Festival saw premieres of two significant works, one lovingly restored, the other brand new. Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, originally released in 1988, has been a regular in numerous critics' polls of great British films yet it has, until now, been virtually impossible to see. The original print had apparently suffered severe degradation, to the point of being unintentionally sepia in colour, and no transfer to VHS or DVD has yet been attempted. I've been wanting to see this film for some time, particularly after watching Davies' extraordinary adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House Of Mirth, in which he elicited a moving and nuanced performance from Gillian Anderson, the kind of performance that her more famous work on The X Files gave no hint at whatsoever. I'm also an admirer of Davies' The Neon Bible, generally considered his least successful work, but which to me seems another great example of his ability to conjure a mysterious and sporadically terrifying mood.

On paper, Distant Voices... would seem like a deeply unappealing prospect. It's essentially another dour British film about working class family life, involving a brutal father and compassionate, downtrodden mother. However, Davies' method is so unique as to render all 85 minutes of this meticulously controlled work visually fascinating and conceptually haunting. It is one of the best films about the cumulative impact of memory that I have seen, and a prime example of how form can be made to impact on content, with real success. With its series of songs, it perhaps most closely resembles a Dennis Potter drama (Pennies From Heaven, perhaps?), but it is genuinely unlike anything else in modern British cinema. The brilliance of the approach lies in the way the songs trigger and enhance the various memories, which come in the form of a series of vignettes. As such, there's no plot, consistent narrative or even much in the way of dialogue - yet the dynamic performances and constantly inventive camerawork and photography (which imbues the film's main location, the family home, with a palpable and paradoxical sense of foreboding and warmth) not only sustain interest, but create a wonderfully compelling mood.

That this was also an autobiographical work adds to its poignancy. At the Q and A session afterwards, the colourful and theatrical Davies admits 'it wasn't like you saw in the film - it was infinitely worse'. Whilst it is undoubtedly harsh and occasionally miserable, it is leavened by passages of real warmth and humour, and to me it captured the innate wonder (and, as Davies himself would have it, the poetry) of everyday life with honesty and candour.

That Davies has only made four feature films in his career, and has failed to receive any funding for planned projects since the unfortunate commercial failure of The House Of Mirth, is an indictment of the disastrous approach to the Arts in modern Britain. It's fine for lightweight comedies such as Bend It Like Beckham, because they present a rose-tinted feelgood view of Britain which can easily be exported. Apparently, it's also fine for the dreadful likes of Sex Lives Of The Potato Men, a film so bad it didn't even register commercially. Against this backgrounds, one of the real masters of modern film making, who makes distinctive, unconventional but hardly offputting masterpieces, can no longer get a film made. What's going on, exactly?

Many will point to Andrea Arnold's highly acclaimed Red Road as a sign of a revival in original British cinema, yet the more I think about this film (and it certainly provides plenty to ponder), the less convinced I am. This is first because of its unusual background. The film exists not in isolation but as part of a wider project commissioned by Zentropa, the production company of that ludicrous charlatan Lars Von Trier, in which three different film makers must produce films centred on the same seven characters. They will be played by the same actors across the three films, but Arnold, being fortunate enough to 'go first', got to select her own cast. It's difficult to make a judgement on this until all three films have been shown, but my gut reaction is that it's probably another ultimately pointless formalistic experiment from the Von Trier staple. There are small mercies, however - at least Arnold didn't have to make it according to the Dogme rules. Still, my reservation here is that, in spite of Arnold's short film Oscar success, her first feature came only with the influence of a major European arthouse staple, so it's not entirely fair to credit our funding moguls with much initiative here.

To its credit, Red Road is technically superb. The central performances from Kate Dickey and Tony Curran are candid and intense, whilst the overall mood of the film is fraught with genuine tension. The integration of specially prepared CCTV footage and conventional filming is intelligent and intuitive and Arnold obviously has an instinctive feel for mood, as the film's party sequence demonstrates superbly. The whole work carries the claustrophobic atmosphere that seems appropriate to its themes of surveillance and revenge.

Unfortunately, perhaps, it's the latter theme that comes to dominate. From the minute we first find CCTV operator Jackie singling out a figure from her past, we wonder what her motives are. We learn that the man has been released early from prison, and clearly he is deeply entwined with Jackie's past. Clues are planted throughout the film until we finally realise why Jackie proceeds to follow Clyde around the harsh environment of the Red Road estate, leaving her comfortable safe haven to encroach on an entirely different, sometimes violent world. Eventually we learn that Clyde killed Jackie's family in a car accident whilst high on crack, and it is for this that he spent time behind bars.

This brings two problems. Is it really convincing that Clyde would completely fail to recognise Jackie, even to the extent of being sexually attracted to her? We are supposed to believe that he refused to look at her in court, which is conceivable, but would this not have been a major case receiving a fair amount of local media attention too? Even less plausible, but certainly intriguing, is the means of Jackie's revenge. Stalking Clyde around the estate, gatecrashing his party and becoming familiar with his friends, she contrives to have sex with him, subsequently retrieving the used condom and applying herself with his semen in order to accuse him of rape. Although this whole sequence is stylistically and dramatically superb - genuinely explicit but also, thoroughly unusually, wholly realistic (at least in its physical aspects), it just doesn't quite seem real. Could a mother who has lost her partner and child at the hands of a dangerous driver really force herself to have sex with the perpetrator of the crime? The film at least partially addresses the moral implications of her actions with a taut final confrontation between the two figures, but it stops short of a full analysis. In its outcome, it fails to venture far beyond the conventional confines of the revenge thriller.

Whilst the whole film is distinctive and thoroughly compelling, it never quite achieves emotional resonance. Who should we empathise with more - the criminal trying to 'go straight', whose privacy and intergrity have been so horribly violated, or the criminally distressed and bereaved mother? Perhaps it's better that the film leaves questions like this somewhat open and unresolved, but along with the fact that the film doesn't attempt to say much about Britain's surveillance culture (foreign audiences have struggled to believe that the CCTV operating centre depicted in the film is real, and not some sci-fi invention), I can't help feeling that it's simply too elusive. Does Jackie operate as a benevolent monitor of her community, hoping to protect others, because she can't cope with the loss of her own loved ones? Is Arnold's experience of CCTV as a benevolent, helpful tool really the case across the country, given the number of cases where CCTV has proved largely useless in preventing or deterring crime? Red Road is a provocative, challenging and brilliantly crafted film that shows tremendous creative promise - but its flaws linger in the mind as much as its undoubted achievements.

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