The release schedule has, in recent years, become so depleted in its economic torso that one inevitably approaches a modestly budgeted film set in the Hebrides with expectations of grinding indie realism. You don’t get many middle-stump, mainstream entertainments on this contained scale any more. Yet The Road Dance turns out to be the sort of pleasant, nicely acted melodrama you expect to be adapted from a book that topped lending library figures in the 1970s. A Catherine McCookson if you will.
The source is in fact a 2004 novel by John MacKay. We are on the Isle of Lewis in the run-up to the first World War. Knowledge of history and familiarity with narrative tropes will render spoilers largely impossible for the film’s opening half. Kind, bookish Murdo (Will Fletcher) and his pals are keen to get to the front, but suspect that the war will be over by Christmas. Kirsty Macleod (Hermione Corfield), a spirited young woman with a passion for Robert Louis Stevenson, has tentatively attached herself to Murdo despite at least one other local boy expressing interest. The community elects to have a “road dance” before hostilities commence. It goes well enough until – in a responsible, but not coy, sequence – an unknown assailant rapes Kirsty.
The body of the film then deals with our heroine’s struggles while the young men are away. You have probably already worked out the larger exoskeleton of the plot, but strong acting and attractive production design fan away any suggestions of torpor. Though the exteriors do have a folk-park ambience, the tight community is believably fleshed out and the sociological detail seems convincing. There is an eccentric mariner named Skipper (Jeff Stewart) living in weird isolation. There is an inquisitive local copper (Ian Pirie). Mark Gatiss turns up as a patrician doctor who is treated as unofficial laird of the isle.
None of the actors has more to work with than a broad type. Kirsty is the brave firebrand. Gatiss is no more or less than the platonic ideal of a well-educated posh bloke. The screenplay does move through one or two modestly arresting swerves, but we are more at home to drift than racing plot.
Still, almost entirely set in the island community, The Road Dance delivers on its mission to entertain without defying any long-standing conventions. A pleasant slice of afternoon telly for the big screen.
Opens on May 20th