Red Riding: 1974, 1980 and 1983
Posted on Sunday March 1, 2009, 00:33 by Damon Wise
My review of this very, very good crime project will follow just as soon as I've gathered my thoughts! In the meantime, here's a shot of tonight's NFT panel with (from left) Michael Hayden (NFT/BFI moderator), Andrew Eaton (producer), Tony Grisoni (writer), Julian Jarrold (director, 1973), James Marsh (director, 1980) and Anand Tucker (director, 1983).
And here it is:
I'll put my hand up and admit now that I've never read a word of fiction by David Peace, although, having had him explained to me several years ago by one of the UK's most underused actors I feel as though I do very much know what he's about. And I think if you haven't read his Red Riding Quartet by now, it's probably best to wait until after this three-part series is over (it starts on C4 this Thursday). In the meantime, all you really need to know is that Peace was born near Wakefield in 1967, came of age during the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and the miner's strike, likes Joy Division, and had a bolt of inspiration when he was given a copy of James Ellroy's White Jazz after he moved to Japan in 1994. That, in a nutshell, should tell you about Red Riding and its origins; and even though it was adapted by Tony Grisoni alone, working from Peace's four novels (the third part was skipped for financial reasons), there's enough of his perspective in this very strange but rewarding neo-noir, an attempt to create a gritty, Scorsese-style genre of drama in the north of England that producer Andrew Eaton only half-jokingly described as “The Full Marty” before the trilogy had its sort-of premiere in a marathon screening session at London's Southbank last night.
The first part is something of a tester. Directed by Julian Jarrold, whose previous movies – Bridehead Revisited, Becoming Jane, Kinky Boots – have nothing in common with this save maybe a strong sense of period, it's a dark, twisted and almost dreamlike evocation of the past. Titled 1974, it stars Andrew Garfield as Eddie Dunford, a young crime reporter on The Yorkshire Post who becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a local schoolgirl. Linking the mystery to two previous disappearances, Dunford suspects that not only is a serial killer at work but that his identity is being protected by police top brass, whose corrupt influence is confirmed when a colleague is murdered. It gets a bit overheated, and not a little confusing by the end, but as an opening salvo, the 106-minute 1974 perfectly sets the mood. My only qualm is that the child murder that precipitates it seems a little self-consciously shocking and unduly bizarre (you'll notice some strange wings over the opening credits), and, as a whole, the trilogy never quite supports the weight of it – by the end, I found myself wondering why, in the North, so many people would collude in the protection of a child killer after the Moors Murderers case (I believe Peace also has misgivings about this device). Still, it's not beyond the realms of possibility, and in a weird way this haziness sometimes works in the trilogy's favour, giving it a harsh, nightmare quality.
The second instalment, 1980, was probably my favourite. With Dunford taken out of the story, his place is taken by Paddy Considine as uptight, by-the-book office Peter Hunter, who has been drafted in to investigate the complete inability of the West Yorkshire police to catch the Yorkshire Ripper, who has been at large for five years now. Hunter is a weary man with an unhappy home life, but, more pressingly, he was the investigating officer into the concluding events of 1974, which means that when he arrives on the scene, the local PCs aren't too happy to see him. Directed by James Marsh (Man On Wire, The King, Wisconsin Death Trip), 1980 has an immediately different look, not least because the aspect ratio and film stock have both changed (1974 was Super-16, 1980 is 35mm), giving this more glossy, realistic surface sheen than the distressed, retro-fitted 1974. This new look gives the story an adrenaline shot, and while there's less of a thriller structure – there's more of an American Gigolo feel as the helpless Hunter finds his sinister fate coalescing around him – that doesn't mean there are no thrills, and almost at the very point where you might be wondering where this is all leading, the climactic one-two punch really is a shocker.
The third part, by Anand Tucker (And When Did You Last See Your Father, Shopgirl, Hilary And Jackie), was shot in digital, not that you'd really notice, and continues the use of widescreen. Being the final instalment, 1983 is likely to be the subject of the most grumbles, not because of any lapse in quality but because, by definition, the end is where the loose ends lie. Like 1974, it begins with the disappearance of a young schoolgirl, a situation that sends detective Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) scurrying back to the files to look for any similarities with the case of the original girl, who was found murdered in a quarry nearly a decade before. In parallel, we also see the story of washed-up solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy), who has been hired to appeal against the jailing of a mentally retarded local (Daniel Mays) for the killing. For me, 1983 was the most difficult section of all, simply because there's so much information and at least two distinct timeframes. By accident or design, these often blur, but, strangely, it doesn't hurt the drama. By being so wilfully challenging, Red Riding consistently has an almost Lynchian sense of atmosphere; by 1983 the mystery is almost a character in itself, one that contaminates and degrades all who come into contact with it.
The denouement won't be to all tastes, and in some ways rings a little hollow after the darkness leading up to it, but Red Riding is quite a remarkable achievement for cinema too, never mind the small screen. The writing is provocative, the acting exemplary (everybody is sensational, and Mark Addy, especially, is a revelation), and the direction from all three is roughly up to speed with both of these. At the end of the trilogy I had my qualms, of course (many of them to do with certain excesses on behalf of the West Yorkshire police), but I left the Southbank satisfied and very excited by what I'd seen. Red Riding can quite comfortably be described as a British Twin Peaks (first series only!), and I say this not because it features dwarves, giants and log ladies but because it is about evil and place, something David Lynch defined amazingly in that outstanding series. It also takes a truly radical approach to narrative, in the way it plays with time and perspective; characters you think are incidental turn into leads, while others you think will get a big reveal are left creepily vague. And as it does in the story itself, history distorts and repeats itself in surprising ways: I was reminded of Magnolia, not simply because it's an ensemble piece but because for the most part it's a grimly predestined ensemble piece (“And the book says, 'We may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us...'”). It could be the most important piece of TV of the decade. It's not entirely perfect, but it definitely, physically and intellectually, raises the bar.