Rag Tale

UK release date: 7 October 2005

cast list
Rupert Graves
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Malcolm McDowell
Ian Hart
Lucy Davis
John Sessions
Bill Paterson
Kerry Fox
Sara Stockbridge
Simon Callow
Cal Macaninch
David Hayman

directed by
Mary McGuckian

The British tabloid press is ripe for satire – perhaps even beyond it. But, though it may be something of an easy target, there’s still an amusing film to be made in sending up its quirks and characters. Unfortunately Mary McGuckian’s improvised newspaper saga is nowhere near being that film.

Rupert Graves plays Eddy Taylor, the editor of the Daily Rag. He’s engaged in an unwise affair with his deputy, MJ (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – unwise because she also happens to be the glamorous and much younger wife of the paper’s chairman Richard Morton (played by Malcolm McDowell in a suitably Murdoch-esque fashion).

The paper itself – that they have opted to call it the Rag speaks volumes about the level of the humour – is a curious hybrid: the layout apes the Daily Maul but the content reeks of red-top. The staffers are also little more than stereotypes though Sara Stockbridge’s brassy, foul-mouthed fashion editor is believable as a woman doing whatever she needs to ingratiate herself into the boys’ club.

The ever brilliant Ian Hart would, of course, be wonderful in an advert for air freshener, but even he only just rescues his grubby druggy Welsh photographer from caricature. And, playing Eddy’s PA, The Office’s Lucy Davis turns in a performance that is basically a nastier, harder version of Dawn – though, having said that, her sarcastic comebacks are some of the funniest things in this film.

The actors improvised their dialogue around an initial story by McGuckian, but most of the nuances of their performance are trampled over by the film’s absurdly over the top visual style. The production actually trumpets its innovative camerawork – digital, hand-held, multi-angle – and while that grainy, documentary style look can really work when it’s justified and the potential of digital technology in cinema is only just being exploited (Mike Figgis’ Timecode made inspired use of it) here it’s laid on so thick it makes your head spin.

Rag Tale is a collage of rapid cuts, fast motion, extremely unforgiving close ups, that expose the actors’ every clogged pore and wrinkle, and pointless music video shifts from black and white to colour. And it’s constant. There’s no let up. The camera is never still. It’s like a montage of the trippy bits in Green Wing without the jokes to provide some respite – pointlessly extreme. I suppose it’s meant to reflect an intense, adrenaline and coke fuelled world but really it just feels as if it was shot by an eight year old with ADHD. It’s at times physically difficult to watch.

It doesn’t help matters that the story this all hinges on – a sordid secret and a bit of blackmail – is beyond implausible. An amusing sequence near the start, where the office staff eavesdrop on Eddy and MJ’s desktop liaison, and a few cynical laughs at the end do not justify this overlong, headache inducing mess.

The portrait of journos as irredeemably heartless hacks is both lazy and dated, especially after Paul Abbot’s superb State Of Play on the BBC (second series, where art thou?) And only a few months back Annie Griffin’s excellent Festival demonstrated that semi-improvised media literate cinema could be funny as well as scathing. This film takes the nugget of a good idea and bludgeons it to death, wasting the talents of a strong cast in the process.

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