Given the challenges the film industry has faced across the last year as a result of the pandemic, with cinemas closed globally, and films being screened primarily into living rooms, never has the value of an audience felt more essential. With that in mind, we should also put some value on the aforementioned audience’s opinions, too, and when it came to the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival, the watching faithful had one award to vote on, the prestigious Audience Award. This prize went to Richie Adams’ quietly powerful, and moving period drama The Road Dance – and it’s a more than deserving of this accolade.
Adapted from John MacKay’s novel of the same name, which is turn is loosely based on real events, The Road Dance transports the viewer back to the First World War, and the slow, tense build up towards the outbreak of battle, exploring the affects it had on communities across Britain. Here we enter the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Scottish Hebrides, meeting the young Kirsty MacLeod (Hermione Corfield), who longs for a route out of her small village life, with dreams of one day sailing across the Pond and starting anew in America. She shares these secret aspirations with her even-more-secret lover Murdo (Will Fletcher), though he’s conscripted, turning their feasible dreams into mere fantasies. On the evening before he leaves, the village hosts a road dance in aid of the young, departing boys, and it’s on this fateful night that Kirsty’s life changes forever.
The aesthetic of the piece is striking, it’s beautifully crafted, managing to blend the suffocation of Kirsty’s existence, with the freeing, endless possibility of the broad landscape. It’s quite a feat for us to get such a sense for her freedom and loneliness in equal measure. The themes bring a powerful, feminist undercurrent to the film too, looking at a war-time drama from a new perspective, away from the trenches and the war-rooms, and instead at the women left behind, fighting their own battles during this devastating time.
The female protagonists are strong-willed and well-crafted, and none more so than Kirsty, brought to life in remarkable fashion by Corfield. The young actress brings an incredible sense of empathy, and vulnerability, mixed with an inner toughness that feels like a performance that could truly elevate this talented actress to stardom. Fletcher is a real prospect too as Murdo, and between them you almost get Lady Macbeth vibes, and what that film did for its trio of then-newcomers Florence Pugh, Naomie Ackie and Cosmo Jarvis.
What helps the performers is that the screenplay gives them space to perform, with lengthy, dialogue-heavy sequences that are pensively employed and more than reward the patient viewer. Some brilliant two-handers are of course reliant on strong collaborations, and the youthful cast is helped along by the exceptional talents of Morven Christie, who plays Kirsty’s mother, and Mark Gatiss, who plays the village’s doctor, in what is something of a departure for the affable performer.
Through these performances comes sequences that are difficult to sit through, for this film is no walk in the park, with emotionally-charged, dramatic scenes that will shock and compel in equal measure. Though even the most disturbing of moments are handled with a sensitivity by writer-director Adams, who brings a delicate touch to proceedings, allowing this story and the characters on the page come to life in a subtle manner. You barely notice his direction, which doesn’t sound like a compliment, but believe me, it is. Even the score is subdued, with everything feeling so nuanced and meticulous in its inclusion, to help paint this sorrowful tale.
But even with the film’s stark tonal shift, and the tragic scenes that unfold, there’s a vital element of hope bubbling under the surface. Perhaps it is here that some comparisons can be made to the last couple of challenging years, and why the audience in Edinburgh responded in the way that they have, for despite all of the darkness and bleakness that exists in this world, light always remains at the end of the tunnel, and this film manages to thrive in this notion. Just.