Producers: Jim Kreutzer, Maryilene Blondell and Steven Shapiro Director: Richie Adams Screenplay: Richie Adams Cast: Hermione Corfield, Morven Christie, Will Fletcher, Ali Fumiko Whitney, Jeff Stewart, Mark Gatiss, Ian Pirie, Sean Gilder, Jimmy Yuill, Alison Peebles, Forbes Masson, Tom Byrne, Luke Nunn, Scott Miller, David Brooks, Liam Brennan, Frances Grey, Felicity Keenan, Leigh Biagi and Caleb Johnston-Miller Distributor: Music Box Films
Richie Adams’ adaptation of John MacKay’s 2002 novel—the first volume of his “Hebrides” trilogy—is essentially a period tearjerker about a woman’s resilience in the face of tragedy, but an evocative, emotionally effective one, anchored by a powerful lead performance by Hermione Corfield. “The Road Dance” doesn’t engender the suspense it’s after, and its multiple climaxes are overly pat, but its virtues are enough to make it watchable.
The heroine of the piece is Kirsty McLeod, whom we meet as a girl on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides at the beginning of the twentieth century. In a brief prologue set in 1904, she’s shown as a tyke (Felicity Keenan) gamboling on the beach with her father (David Brooks). The sun is shining on the lens wielded by cinematographer Petra Korner, but the grim grey cliffs looming in the distance suggest that there’s trouble to come, as does her father’s shortness of breath even as he tells her to breathe after venturing into the sea, and twelve years later he’s dead of cancer, and Kirsty, now played by Corfield, is working the small family farm with her widowed mom Mairi (Morven Christie) and younger sister Annie (Ali Fumiko Whitney).
The young men in the area all gravitate toward Kirsty, who’s always an attraction at the road dances, the jovial bouts of singing, dancing and drinking the locals enjoy in the open at the crossroads some evenings, but the suitor she’s drawn to is bookish, gentle soldier Murdo MacAulay (Will Fletcher), and he’s entranced by her. They both dream of leaving Scotland for New York, and it becomes clear that they intend to become husband and wife.
But it’s the middle of World War I, and Murdo, along with several other young men of the community, are drafted into service on the Western Front under a new conscription act. A farewell road dance is held for them, and walking home alone from it Kirsty is attacked and raped by an assailant she can’t identify. Explaining that she was injured in a fall, she’s tended by Dr. MacLean (Mark Gatiss). Deciding to keep what really happened a secret, she sees Murdo off while still heavily bandaged.
Multiple tragedies follow. Murdo, who writes Kirsty hopeful letters, is pronounced missing in action during a sortie in no man’s land, and, on the basis of evidence provided by his comrades, is presumed dead. Meanwhile Kirsty realizes that she’s pregnant and struggles to keep her condition secret, even from her mother and sister. When the day of the child’s arrival finally comes, she takes a decision that adds to the atmosphere to death and doom.
The final act of the drama brings further danger to Kirsty and her family, as well as a focus on other locals—and the question of who her rapist was. The colorful characters that come to the fore in the ensuing search for the truth include the local constable (Ian Pirie), a second doctor he calls in to aid in his investigation (Jimmy Yuill), an elderly recluse called Skipper (Jeff Stewart) who fascinates Kirsty because he’s visited America, and an old biddy named Peggy (Alison Peebles) who knows just about everything about everybody. But though the narrative appears to be heading toward a grim conclusion, a number of implausible twists ensure something very different.
Those shifts are an almost perfect illustration of Oscar Wilde’s satirical observation of what fiction means, but though you might find them hard to swallow (except for the revelation of the rapist’s identity, which any astute viewer will have determined far in advance), they will come as a relief to most.
And even if you find the narrative contortions difficult to accept, you should find consolation in Corfield’s fine performance, which runs the gamut from young loveliness to desperation, and handsome, diffident Fletcher, who makes as perfect a mate for her as Jane Austen could have imagined. The supporting cast is strong down the line, filled with the sort of able character actors the UK boasts in.
And of course the locale is a character in itself, and Korner seizes upon its possibilities, even if some sequences are so dark as to inhibit clarity about the action going on in them. She’s aided by Anna Mould’s production design and Gill Horn’s costumes, which add period authenticity, while the score by Carlos José Alvarez, who might not strike you as the first choice for such an assignment, works as well. Editor Matt Mayer works closely with Adams to achieve an unhurried pace that nonetheless doesn’t lack underlying tension.
One can imagine “The Road Dance” serving nicely as an extended “Masterpiece Theatre” episode. That’s a compliment.