On St. Patrick’s Day I avoided drunken crowds by going to the movies. I chose “Red Riding Hood” because I felt it would be foolishness requiring no thought. I like a good fairy tale as well as the next person, very possibly more. I have the Yellow and Blue Fairy Books at home and will pick up the other colors as I come across them. I like the Grimms, Perrault, “Fractured Fairy Tales,” and enjoy the use of old folktales as fodder for re-tellings customized to our own times.
“Red Riding Hood” had almost enough budget to be shot for the big screen, but retains the look and feel of the small screen. It includes many an interesting visual element, but that is largely all it is – a series of shots, moments, images. While it has a beginning, middle, and end, with some satisfaction in that last, the film missed many marks.
This is not the Little Red Riding Hood who, at 8, skips along collecting flowers on the way to Grandmother’s house. At 8, this Red Riding Hood, Valerie, is trapping a rabbit with her friend Peter, and she’s the one who carries the knife. This Peter has some relationship to Tchaikovsky’s Peter, with a twist; the red riding hood, played in this film by Amanda Seyfried, is that “Li’l Red Riding Hood” that Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs were singing to in the Sixties. (And just for a little fun, here it is: )
Director Catherine Hardwicke opens with the vastness of snow-covered forests and mountains. It could be the Black Forest, site of many a frightening tale. It has green trees and leaves and undergrowth like any other forest; its blackness is about the closeness of the trees, the darkness due to lack of light. It’s magnificent, but terrifying to humans. Small clearings are made near water sources so that people may live, clustered together in a small spot of light inside the darkness. That’s where so many of the stories of fairy tales come from, the homes shut tight against the night, and its monsters. Hardwicke makes good use of the shadows in darkness, something running past the camera too fast to be identified. Rustlings in the straw. Animal or human? Benign or evil?
In this story the town is made up of little straw houses with pikes sticking out of the sides. Since these have never kept the wolf at bay, one wonders why the people would endanger their livestock and children with such spears all around, but this is the movies. The little straw houses look fake and flimsy, and at one point, during a party/dance scene, someone even sings of the little pigs and the wolf blowing the house down. This bit of sly humor upped my hopes for the film. But then it moved on.
Peter, the boy and man Valerie has always loved, is played by Shiloh Fernandez (fifteen years ago he would have been played by Joaquin Phoenix – looks like a bad guy, but is he?). Fernandez does the job, but there are no sparks here. Then there’s Henry, the nice moneyed boy (that is, the one whose father is the town blacksmith) to whom her family has engaged Valerie. Henry is sincerely played by Max Irons, but he’s rather dull, except in one smoldering scene with Julie Christie.
Amanda Seyfried’s Valerie is the porcelain heroine with a knife in her boot. She has very large blue eyes and she widens them. A lot. She, too, is rather dull. Pretty, looks good in the big red cape. But that’s what she is – “the pretty one.”
The incandescent Julie Christie as Valerie’s grandmother is much better than her material, with inconsistencies that shout “directorial choice.” Virginia Madsen tries hard as the girl's mother, Billy Burke better as the father. The young people are attractive in their various ways, but otherwise uninteresting, with the exceptions of Kacey Rohl as Prudence and Shauna Kain as Roxanne.
Lucas Haas was wasted (as usual) as Father Augustine. The doors to his odd little church depict a haloed saint on one side, and a wolf on the other. This mixture of Christianity and animal worship – after all, the terribly feared wolf could have been worshipped in an earlier society, and the town still does sacrifice animals to it -- is an element that deserved some exploration. Alas, it was left right there on the church step. It was Father Augustine who called in The Church to save the town from the wolf after it killed Lucy, Valerie’s sister. The Church is represented by an Inquisitor type named Father Solomon, who is also father of two little girls who ride with him in his brig-like carriage and are never seen again.
Father Solomon is played by Gary Oldman, who can generally be relied upon to be creepy and/or funny. Here he is neither. He’s just a run-of-the-mill nasty church guy with silver fingernails.
Creepiest bit is the torture device Father Solomon brought to town. It’s somewhere between the Trojan Horse and the storybook wolf itself with victims in its belly. Except this huge elephant is based on the Bronze Bull of ancient Greece, and its victims are baked alive.
Elements of the many versions of the original tale are employed here – Valerie’s grandmother’s house is outside of town (oooh, why??), there are woodcutters, the church is holy ground so the wolf cannot pass there, and finally inserting stones in the belly of the wolf, an idea from a related story. Elements of the old story come from different time periods and places, and their use depended on the story’s purpose, and the moral it was used to teach.
In this story, there’s really no moral. It centers around one family – one rather drunken woodcutter, one wife, two daughters, with the older daughter Lucy the first killed by the local wolf in some time. Said daughter was in love with younger daughter Valerie’s betrothed, and eventually the truth of the elder daughter’s patrimony comes out…. Well it’s a soap with more serious consequences than most.
Director Catherine Hardwicke made pretty, atmospheric shots. There is, of course, snow so as to show off the red, red cloak. Not to mention the blood of the wolf attacks and the nasty churchmen. That red hooded cape grows as long and wide as the biggest bridal train you can imagine.
My favorite sequence in the film is seen through Valerie’s mask, when Father Solomon has bound her as a sacrificial offering in the town square. Her friend Prudence comes to speak to her after Valerie's been denounced as a witch. We see Prudence’s face through the eyeholes of Valerie’s mask, and the scene is quite effective. For the moment. Unfortunately the director doesn’t keep such energies flowing for long, and the scene moves on to the rather expected.
I would guess the screenwriter David Johnson had a fine time researching many a tale to pick elements for this one, but alas, the script is pedestrian in spots and predictable in others.
This does not mean the actors couldn’t have done better work. That they so consistently did not means that Ms. Hardwicke was more concerned with getting the shot than finding the characters, or expanding on the story into more than a period romance. While the film moves along at a good pace, shot by shot, storyboard frame by frame, Hardwicke didn’t direct her actors to be anything but costumed puppets hitting their spots. Some of the actors have their moments, but most (and some surprisingly) do not.
Interestingly – meaning I think she had had something in mind -- Hardwicke brought the camera very frequently to the town’s women, in particular the mothers – Julie Christie as the Grandmother to Valerie and Lucy, Virginia Madsen as their mother, the wonderful and slightly scary Christine Willes as fiancé Henry’s grandmother; even Shauna Kain as motherly sister to Claude. (Claude was a mentally challenged boy who could barely speak, but who was clearly sweetness and light. Just the type Inquisitor types like to call witch.) If in this focus Hardwicke had had something in mind, however, she forgot along the way.
“Red Riding Hood” felt to me like a basket of opportunities missed, as well as the point.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to get out there into a 70 degree day!