If your Spanish history isn’t great, expect from Marshlands a slow-moving True Detectives-esque murder mystery story. It’s 1980 and two gruff cops from Madrid (played by Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutierrez) are in southern Spain investigating a crime that is…well let’s just say: “particularly heinous”. They soon find themselves on the trail of a dangerous serial offender with ties to pornography and drug trafficking. You’ll probably be confused by the pair’s relationship (Are they buddy cops? Do they despise each other? Do they even know each other?), but by the end, their relationship becomes somewhat clearer.
If I was rating the film on its visual style, it’d be something like an 8/10. Marshlands is gorgeous – director Alberto Rodriguez has put together a dream team, his core filmmaking buddies who have also worked on his last few projects, and they can really nail the look and feel of a film. The cinematographer/director of photography is the real star of the show. There are a number of beautiful aerial shots of the marshlands that would almost seem like showing off if they didn’t fit so well with the film – and it is for these shots that Álex Catalán no doubt won the Goya Award for Cinematography, but it his clever use of low light that impressed me most. Using 7k cameras and state-of-the-art colour grading, it seems that Catalán was able to use next to no lighting whatsoever in some scenes, without struggling to capture the image. One scene – the riveting car chase – was seemingly lit only by the car headlights. (Which at one point even went out entirely!) Couple that with clever editing and decent acting, and we are on track for a high rating film.
Unfortunately, the murder mystery is just a little too run-of-the-mill. It moved slowly; they investigated crimes scenes, uncovered leads and clues, and then chased the bad guy. I found myself thinking: “Wow, it must be pretty easy to write one of these murder mysteries…”
But even the most standard plot line can be saved if it is set within an interesting context, and I think that’s what the writers were trying to do with Marshlands. The problem is that the political context of the film is perhaps a little obscure for most people (for us Aussies, at least), and it is only really hinted at, never explained, in the film. Therefore, if you want to get more from the film than just a nice looking murder mystery, you’re going to need to brush up on your Spanish history. So, because I’m thorough, the next paragraph will be the crash course necessary to follow the story…
A dictator named Francisco Franco was Spain’s dictator from 1939 until his death in 1975. His rule was pretty awful and oppressive, but during it Spain experienced a period of huge economic growth known as the “Spanish Miracle” (through equal parts luck and planning), which spanned from 1959 until 1974, when the oil crisis stopped it in its tracks. After Franco’s death, Spain began to transition into a democracy, a process that wasn’t complete until somewhere between ’78 and ’82 (depending on what you deem “complete”). The forward-thinking new leader was in the process of freeing up the place – giving women equal rights, giving workers the right to protest and strike, etc. Set in 1980, this film takes place in a time during which some remained loyal to the dictator, and some looked forward to a democratic Spain. And wouldn’t you know it, Marshland‘s original odd couple are one of each.
Interesting, right? Well, not really. Sorry to say, but if with all this context laid bare, you are expecting to get a whole new level of depth to the story – unfortunately, it’s just not there. This political tension between the pair manifests in tight-jawed glares and pregnant silences, which, to be honest, I just thought was them being deep in thought about the case. Very little is articulated until almost the end of the film, at which point the audience reacts with a resounding, “Oh, okay.”
It really did look nice though, and there’s a top notch car chase. 5/10 stars.