Film Review #223: Red Riding Trilogy
Directors: Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Warren Clarke, Davd Morrissey, Rebecca Hall, Sean Bean, Paddy Considine, Maxine Peake, Robert Sheehan
Even with advance planning, it’s a pain to schedule the screenings of three linked, full-length feature films so that audiences can choose whether to see all five hours’ worth of viewing on the same day or one installment at a time. Last week Cinemapolis, Ithaca’s downtown indie multiplex on East Green St., rose to the challenge of opening the British Red Riding Trilogy two weeks earlier than its long-scheduled April 16th start-date. While no one has said so, U.S distributor IFC Films may have pushed up theatre bookings here in reaction to last week’s release of the DVD set in England, which became available to us almost immediately at amazon.com. Red Riding Trilogy is one of the latest in the ever-more respectable genre of “long form television” (think Prime Suspect, Rome and, still my personal favorite, Deadwood). Red Riding premiered on U.K.’s Channel 4 in March 2009 and then was introduced to US audiences first via five film festivals including last October’s New York Film Festival. But the trilogy only opened theatrically state-side in February, beginning in Manhattan with a week at IFC and additional on-demand availability in a few regions before making its slow trek to the kinds of theatre that can offer both the right audience and enough screens to let you – as Cinemapolis said – “map out your strategy” for seeing the set.
Even if all the kinks aren’t worked out for distributing this sort of hybrid work, Red Riding lives up to its sterling pedigree. Set in and around the West Yorkshire city of Leeds in northern England, Red Riding is based on David Peace’s 1999 quartet of cult “Northern noir” novels. There is a shared cast, three interlocking scripts written by Tony Grisoni, and three directors – Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker – who got to hand-pick their own DPs, editors and crews, and who say they never felt particularly constrained by limited resources. England’s Channel 4 commissioned the adaptation of the Red Riding novels by Grisoni, whose scripts were then produced by Michael Winterbottom’s partner in Revolution Films, Andrew Eaton. All the directors and many in the cast say that the scripts so excited them that they lobbied hard to be part of the project.
Set in 1974, 1980 and 1983 – the third novel in the quartet has been left out except for some scenes that furnish flashbacks in the final film – the stories are based on real events in the region: the first, on the “Moors murders” of five children over 1963-65; the second, on the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders of thirteen women in 1975-80 by one Peter Sutcliffe; and the third on case of Stefan Kiszko, who served sixteen years for a 1975 murder he didn’t commit.
Red Riding Trilogy uses these elements as plot scaffolding, but the films are much more concerned with how character unfolds among those trying to untangle events than your usual procedural. Perhaps for this reason, though Grisoni reportedly did make charts to keep the storylines straight as part of his writing process, we probably find remarkably little need for that as sets of characters return or fade, come into close-up focus or recede for a time. All this occurs in the context of police corruption and greed, the region’s simmering resentment against outside governance, and larger political events of the time – the mining strikes, unrest related to IRA activities in the North of Ireland and social conditions that spurred the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Though best seen in order, the films are meant to also stand alone, and the first two could. The third one depends too much, I suspect, on the device of flashback for that to really work.
So for example, the first film – Julian Jarrold’s Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1974 – begins with a scene – which all three contain in some variation very early on – of someone driving, traversing the vast bleak, often rain-soaked or fog-blurred hills of the North, establishing the region’s remoteness from the buzzing metropolis of the nation’s hub. By the time we zoom in, any marks of global connection – national TV news or the hulking nuclear stacks that loom above the stubby public housing known as “estates” – seem as blunted in effect here as the outsider behind the steering wheel. In Jarrold’s film that’s Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a cub reporter who’s come back home “from the South” and whom his older colleagues quickly dismiss on that basis as a “young Turk” who won't last a month.
In Dunford’s effort to cover breaking news of a third gruesome local child mutilation and murder, he gets fatally involved with the mother of one girl, Paula Garfield (Rebecca Hall). This cannot end well; once they decide to flee to the sunny South, he promises to return in two hours to pick her up. But spotting this convention doesn’t diminish the fascination of watching it play out one jot. Before his own demise, Dunford uncovers much of what unravels years later about the connection between local police Bill Molloy (Warren Clarke) and Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), and the nouveau riche construction magnate John Dawson (Sean Bean, who provides a gauche, perversely fascinating Brit version of Josh Brolin’s lip-smacking George Bush the younger). Dawson, possessor of what he calls a “private weakness,” meets a bloody end in the bar of his Karachi Club, a shoot-out that echoes down the years to come.
Here we first meet characters who seem minor but emerge in later films for their own spotlight turns – the young hustler BJ (Robert Sheehan), the priest Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), the sociopathic henchmen Bob Craven (Sean Harris) and Tommy Douglas (Tony Mooney). The second film introduces additional ensemble characters, as does the third.
James Marsh’s Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1980, the tightest of the three, begins again with an outsider's arrival, Manchester police detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), who's sent to investigate the investigators when a separate string of serial murders – rapes and tortures of adult women – yields another victim. Hunter in one of Considine’s best performances ever, restrained, decent, anguished by his life’s narrowing choices. As Eddie Dunford was tagged right away for his youthful disloyalty in moving South, Hunter’s appearance coincides with news reports of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and Yorkshire police’s offer derisive jibes about his passing up dinner as a sympathetic gesture toward another “Roman” (Catholic, that is). Hunter’s joined by detective Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake) – the two comprise this film’s doomed romance – and the turn-coat detective (we see how thoroughly in the last film) John Nolan (Tony Pitts). The priest Martin Laws and the detective Maurice Jobson reappear and inch further into prominance.
Anand Tucker’s Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1983 shifts from outsiders to those who must wrestle with their loyalties as insiders and the consequences of choices that label them disloyal. Attorney John Piggott (Mark Addy), visting his mother's old apartment after her death, is pressured by her elderly neighbor to help a mentally challenged son, locked up for the child murders; she appeals to Piggott’s shared roots in the estates with the plea, “It’s us!” Paired with this, the detective Maurice Jobson, so often his superiors' water-carrier over the years, awakens to the fact that he sent the wrong man is prison. A bit older and just out of prison, BJ returns too, making his way by train and foot toward the estates, his voice-over, "BJ's coming!" promising a reckoning.
Red Riding Trilogy is a study in the greed, corruption and extremity of lusts that can fester unchecked in out of the way places – the phrase, “To the North, where we do what we want!” becomes a kind of incantation – but it also carries the metaphorical theme of redemption that emerges through images of angels. BJ is an avenging angel; others are horribly mutilated aproximations, Frankenstein-like, the flesh of injured swans' wings stitched to the shoulders of dead children. In the third film John Dawson explains that his ultra-modern monstrosity of a house - he is chiefly proud of its cost - was designed on the shape of a swan's wings. When John Piggott emerges, in a cloud of pigeon down shot through with light, from the darkness of what we can only call a kind of hell, with the last victim in his arms, the story needs only the final, surprisingly lyrical voice-over of BJ. This is spoken from the sea shore, far to the South, sunny as West Yorkshire seems never to have been. Like Ismael, he's survived to tell the tale.
Red Riding Trilogy is exhausting, harrowing and completely worth the time. Some may apply the term "Dickensian" - after that most cinematic of novelists - to Red Riding Trilogy. Four years ago, Deadwood creator David Milch told me during an interview that he thought if Dickens were alive today, he'd be writing serials for HBO. We have some glitches to work out in how we market, distribute and screen these kinds of films, and that will be worth it too.
This review appears in the April 8, 2010 Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Though “Red Riding Trilogy” on the big screen closed that night in Ithaca, check out other screenings at Cinemapolis online at www.Cinemapolis.org, for show times, directions and sign-up for Cinemapolis’ weekly e-list announcements. The just-released British DVD set of “Red Riding Trilogy” is available at amazon.com (though only on PAL-format disc for now).