I've always been a great fan of independent cinema. Films made outside of the system as labours of love, usually with the majority of money and time pumped in by a dedicated auteur and their band of generous friends. The results, while sometimes severely flawed, tend to have an energy all of their own that stems from their raw imperfections and, in the case of truly no-budget efforts like Navin Dev's Red Kingdom Rising, the sheer miraculousness of their very existence. When reviewing such a film however, it is important not to allow oneself to excuse every shortcoming just because so much hard work and genuine passion is in evidence on the screen.
Red Kingdom Rising is a psycholgical drama which uses elements of fantasy and horror in its telling. It follows the story of Mary Ann (Emily Stride), a young woman who has spent her life dogged by nightmares about a hideous figure called the Red King. Following the death of her father, she returns to the family home to visit her mother, thus unleashing a tirade of suppressed memories that manifest themselves as symbolic dreams. Mary Ann's traumatic past mixes with passages and characters from Lewis Carroll's Alice... stories as she struggles to unlock the secret of her torment and escape the Red King once and for all.
Red Kingdom Rising, for its extremely modest budget, is immensely impressive on a visual level. Dev and his team have done a superb job of creating a fantasy world with a strong amosphere of foreboding, replete with vividly decked-out creatures and moments of gut-wrenching gore. The Red King is a particularly memorable creation and hangs over the film as a constant, bone-chilling threat. The locations, especially the family home (a Victorian gothic house just outside Leeds) are well chosen and used. Dev's direction is excellent too. After a deliberately slow build-up, he keeps things moving at a pace that never allows the viewer to become bored, even as it provides them ample time to mull over the riddle-strewn script.
While there was much I liked about Red Kingdom Rising however, there was an equal amount of problems I had with the film. Probably chief among these was the acting. It might seem unfair to pick on the actors in a film that relied on unpaid volunteers to help it get made. But the fact remains that it's hard to submerge yourself in any film, even one with such a memorable fantasy world, when the actors all sound like they're reading off cue-cards. Lead actress Emily Stride is the worst offender, perhaps only because she is the one who appears in every scene. As such she must carry the film and sadly her performance is on a par with that of the best actor in your year eleven drama class.
Red Kingdom Rising also suffers with script problems. Although it settles into a nice rhythm once the fantasy element kicks in fully, the dialogue in the handful of real world segments is appalingly bad. It races through the necessary exposition in the most ham-fisted way, telling us what we need to know instead of showing us. But my main problem with Red Kingdom Rising was the lack of originality of the concept itself. Lewis Carroll's work and its inherent creepiness have been explored numerous times before (Jan Svankmajer's Alice and Gavin Millar's Dreamchild, for instance) so I already felt a tad bored by the whole Alice thing when I began watching Red Kingdom Rising. But what really irked me was yet another exploration of childhood trauma that turned out to stem from... well, I don't want to give it away. But suffice it to say, its that same childhood trauma that has been explored over and over, sometimes in an extremely moving way and sometimes very clumsily. In Red Kingdom Rising it's very much the latter and it just contributes further to the subject in question becoming a cheap reveal solved by easy answers, as it has in so many other films that wanted so desperately to be taken seriously.
I really wanted to like Red Kingdom Rising more than I did. I was so impressed by the technical elements of the film that I hoped I would be able to disregard its other shortcomings. But as I struggled to believe anything the actors attempted to portray and as the plot unfolded in exactly the way I'd predicted from the most cursory of glances at a plot synopsis, I found myself less and less able to enthuse about the film. Red Kingdom Rising is certainly a worthwhile indie effort but I think the kindest thing I can say in conclusion is that while Navin Dev may well be a director to look out for in the future, the same certainly can't be said of his screenwriting or casting skills.