The Road Dance

M, 117 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Hermione Corfield in The Road Dance. Image courtesy Maslow/Umbrella Entertainment


The islands of the Outer Hebrides have a wild beauty all their own, captured within the frame of this drama of longing and loss set around the time of the First World War. Early last century, the outside world had little impact on such a remote place, inhabited by hardy folk who lived in houses with thick stone walls, and managed to subsist on meagre crops and the bounty of the sea.

For all the hardship, the place looks magnificent

Communities were knit close and tight, though on occasion they would have had to accept outsiders for the services they offered, or the demands they made that must be met. Like the dreaded call up for military service at the Western Front.

The Road Dance, from director Richie Adams, is set of the Isle of Lewis. It’s at the edge of the world, at the outer reaches of the Hebridean archipelago off Scotland. Adams and his cinematographer, Petra Korner, have filled the frame with many sweeping shots of the rugged shoreline and windswept expanses that were home to Kirsty (Hermione Corfield), and her mother and sister, the Macleods.

A flashback at the film’s start reveals that nature in those parts can sometimes be tame. The ancient cliffs part to reveal the golden crescent of a sandy beach where young Kirsty went swimming with her father, before he was taken away by the sea.

Having reached marriageable age, Kirsty has begun seeing a young local man, Murdo McAuley (Will Fletcher), though they are keeping this relationship quiet for the moment. They dream of escaping to America, as immigrants in search of a new life. Who would blame them?

Kirsty’s mother, Mairi (Morven Christie), points out another young man as a potential husband for her beautiful elder daughter. He is building a house with a slate roof, and a stove. What more could a girl want?

Conscription orders arrive in a terrible reminder of events in the outside world. Just before Murdo and other local men have to leave for military service, the village puts on a road dance. It is just as it sounds, a street party with live music and dancing.

Later that evening, as Kirsty waits for Murdo to join her at their usual meeting place on a cliff walk, a stranger approaches in the gloom, throws her to the ground and rapes her. She strikes her head on rock as she lands, but remains conscious enough to register some things about him.

Murdo arrives minutes after the attack, and carries his beloved to the doctor’s house. The doctor, Connolly (Jimmy Yuill), treats her abrasion, but doesn’t check anything else. A rather odd oversight. Connolly is a recent arrival from London.

If the point is to show the impact on others of a single violent action, the film makes a case in point

The simplicity of its narrative, and its straightforward development, brings the rippling impact of one dreadful act of violence into focus. Based on the book of the same name by Scottish broadcast journalist John McKay, the film was inspired by true events.

After Murdo has gone to war, Kirsty discovers she is pregnant with the child of her assailant, who she initially can’t identify. She tries to hide her condition from everyone, including her family. Of course, that becomes impossible, and when labour begins prematurely it is her mother and sister Annie (Ali Fumiko Whitney) who deliver the baby. Like many of the film’s dramatic moments, the birth scene is naturalistic, played out in real time.

The Road Dance offers few new insights, but it is a reminder of the stark situation a woman can find herself in when she becomes pregnant outside of marriage. Especially in remote locations where pastors of religion thunder about ‘temptations of the flesh’, and police make everything their business.

Despite its resolution in the final scenes, incredible though not implausible, this is a period drama that has a fierce and scrupulous authenticity. The performances by the women who portray the Macleod family are believable and engaging. This is, above all else, a story of family bonding.

However, it is the film’s commanding sense of place that is the most memorable. The Road Dance will be some boost for regional screen tourism.

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 December 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes