The inhabitants of a medieval village live in fear of the werewolf that has plagued their region for years. At the sound of the warning bell most inhabitants take shelter behind the gates, but Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is horrified to discover her older sister has been killed, having been mysteriously lured outside. Valerie is stricken with guilt knowing her sister was in love with Henry (Max Irons), the man to whom she is now betrothed although her heart belongs to Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) the handsome woodcutter. Both Peter and Henry form a hunting party along with Valerie’s father, Cesaire (Billy Burke). They succeed in slaying the beast though Henry’s father is killed. However, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a fanatical werewolf slayer, arrives in the village with his army of multi-racial knights. Solomon reveals the creature they killed was only an ordinary wolf. The real lycanthrope lives not in the woods but among them.
Whilst the Red Riding Hood story spawned its share of family friendly adaptations, thanks largely to the work of groundbreaking novelist Angela Carter it has become commonplace for filmmakers to take a Freudian reading of the tale. Much like Neil Jordan’s superior Carter adaptation, The Company of Wolves (1984), Hardwicke and Johnson mount their Red Riding Hood as an allegory for a young woman’s sexual awakening and seem similarly muddled over what exactly they are trying to say. The film dithers between a faintly insulting psychoanalysis of the bestial nature of young men and their hold over young women, a half-hearted message of female empowerment, and a sop to the fantasies of teenage girls who reckon bad boys need only a little tenderness to draw out their sensitive side. At its heart rests an interesting idea as our heroine delves beneath the lies and hypocrisies woven by grownups but its conclusions are trite at best. It is a perplexing mishmash of fairytale romance, Hammer horror clichés and revisionist historical drama with motifs lifted from The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter.
Hardwicke’s whirling camerawork injects some much needed zest but characterisation is inconsistent and performances are oddly listed. As the titular crimson-cloaked heroine the ever-watchable Amanda Seyfried is the dictionary definition of winsome but visibly struggles to identify what her character arc is supposed to be. Elsewhere the film grievously wastes Gary Oldman in a sub-Vincent Price routine as the alternately embittered, dedicated and ranting wolf hunter; Lukas Haas in an indecipherable role as a character who, if not for the end credits, you would not guess was a priest; and Julie Christie as grandma. And yes, Seyfried does get to do the whole “what big eyes you’ve got” skit in a dream sequence including the surprising sight of Christie in werewolf makeup. Along with Dragonheart (1996) this film wastefully underuses an icon of cinema.
Whilst the above-mentioned quartet at least try to make an impression, the remainder of the cast sleepwalk through their admittedly nondescript roles. Worst offender is Shiloh Fernandez. As brooding hunk Peter he pouts and poses as if this were a photospread for Just Seventeen. Cinematographer Mandy Walker imbues the film with a marvellous, ethereal fairytale look with snowswept scenery that lets Seyfried pop off the screen when she dons her iconic red cloak. An intriguing new element is introduced as Valerie learns she shares a telepathic bond with the werewolf. It is an underdeveloped idea which, like the psychological ramifications of the werewolf’s identity, could have been pushed further.