The Red Riding Trilogy Review
There are some spoilers in the following piece
I spent a large part of my childhood in West Yorkshire. The mere mention of places like Batley, Heckmondwike, Ravensthorpe and Chickenley brings back memories so vivid I feel I’ve travelled back in time. I still go back there regularly and although it’s just about entered the 21st century, it’s still recognisably the place I grew up in. It was a place of deep, ingrained humour and resolve, of hard work and hard play. But it was also a place of bigotry, sexism and, we’ve discovered in retrospect, corruption. It kept to itself and didn’t take kindly to outsiders who thought they could lay down the law. David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet is set in this place but, in a way, it isn’t. The West Yorkshire of the books and, now, of three films is an amalgamation of real events and a very particular artistic vision informed by international true-crime cases and an awful lot of movies.
In the world of Red Riding, the innocent suffer, the guilty thrive and no-one escapes the taint of corruption. It’s a world steeped in the conventions of film noir and pulp fiction mingled with heightened childhood memories and bits and pieces of history. What it is most categorically not is the real world and anyone approaching either the novels or the films expecting a documentary history of West Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983 is going to be disappointed. Having said that, what baffles this writer is why anyone would expect a factual account when this is so plainly a work of fiction. Many critics have complained that the portrait of West Yorkshire during the decade covered by the narrative is unbelievable or inaccurate or both. But this is ludicrous. The Red Riding Quartet is far closer to the kind of occult SF written by Christopher Priest or the secret histories penned by James Ellroy than to the documentary accounts of Brian Masters or Gordon Burn. It offers us a fictionalised portrait of a time or place where actual events merge with imagined ones, producing something startling and new.
That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a documentary element to the films – how could there not be with the wealth of location shooting in places which have barely changed over the last thirty years? We know, for example, that the West Yorkshire Police were known in the 1970s for being particularly insular and secretive. We also know that internal inquiries into a range of police forces throughout the country were rife. Then there’s the matter of the Yorkshire Ripper who was murdering women in West Yorkshire between 1974 and 1980. But what the films do is somewhat broader than this. The force depicted in the film has at least as much to do with the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad as with the West Yorkshire police force. The internal inquiry into the handling of the Ripper case by Peter Hunter carries many other echoes, particularly that of John Stalker’s investigation into the RUC. The Moors Murders come to mind at times while the character of Michael Myshkin is clearly a reference of poor Stefan Kiszko.
But the films are not simply interested in portraying a corrupt police force. They portray a society writhing around in a mire of filth with the stench of death around every corner. Evil flourishes not because good men do nothing but because there are barely any good men about and those good men who are around are either being tortured to the verge of death or ridiculed into silence. Innocence is being cut out of society like a cancer. It’s a vision of total corruption which reminds one of Chinatown but even more all-consuming, as if Noah Cross has become some kind of pagan idol. Human life, and in particular, the lives of children, has been weighed against the possibility of profit and has been found to be expendable. So the police of Red Riding, in order to protect their own backs, and their financial interests, turn a blind eye to the activities of a group of pederasts and pin the blame for the murders they commit on an innocent man.
The first film, 1974 concentrates on a young journalist, Eddie Dunford (Garfield), who is encouraged by a friend to begin looking into the activities of the West Yorkshire Police in the wake of the disappearance of a young girl. Eddie is a classic film-noir protagonist; deeply flawed but basically good and flailing around in a world of moral degradation that he is ill-equipped to deal with. He finds himself at the sharp end of police brutality – a team of officers seemingly dedicated to punishing the curious - and becomes involved with a local property developer, John Dawson (Bean), whose smiling demeanour hides unthinkable depths of depravity.
1974 is distinguished by a very particular visual style – dark, brooding and grubby. Julian Jarrold is best known for his period dramas and his direction perfectly captures the edgy, chaotic atmosphere of the mid-seventies. There is perhaps a slight excess of shaky-cam in places but Jarrold knows the power of his actors and the importance of the dialogue scenes and generally keeps out of the way. He finds his best visual form in a harrowing torture sequence which is never quite as horrible as it threatens to be but is still pretty vicious stuff. As you’d expect from work like Brideshead Revisited, he works brilliantly with the actors and gets a career-best performance out of Sean Bean who is as memorable a smiling villain as you’d ever to avoid. The disappointment with the film is the episodic narrative but to be fair, this is also a problem with the book which tends to move from set-piece to set-piece with bits of filler in-between. The film also changes a considerable amount of the book – the role of Badger Bill Molloy (a terrifying Warren Clarke) is expanded to replace other police characters and the part played by Derek Box and the Bradford Vice Squad is completely omitted.
Directed by the Academy Award winning maker of Man On Wire, James Marsh, 1980 is perhaps the most approachable of the three films and the most self-contained. It’s linked to the others through the setting and some of the characters but, generally, it can be appreciated as a study of the failure of goodness to put up an effective fight against evil. Good is represented by Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Considine) who has been brought in by the Home Office to investigate the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper and, by implication, the corruption of the West Yorkshire Police. Evil is represented by two separate forces; firstly, “Peter”, the man who has killed eighteen women and is ultimately caught; and secondly, by the corrupt officers who deliberately make Hunter’s job difficult and ultimately put his life in danger.
1980 is dominated by Paddy Considine’s wonderfully touching performance as the all-too-human Peter Hunter who is, like Eddie Dunford, incapable of fully comprehending the immorality he discovers. Trapped in memories of an affair with a close colleague, he realises his own flaws and, eventually, his own incapacity. Considine is totally convincing as a good man trying to battle a bad world and he’s given superb back-up by Maxine Peake as his old flame. There’s also a twist in the tail which most first-time viewers won’t spot but which becomes totally clear in 1983 and provides a thoroughly shocking conclusion. James Marsh directs with quiet style on some thoroughly gloomy locations and brings out a particularly memorable performance from Sean Harris as the totally amoral PC Bob Craven.
Wrapping up the trilogy is Anand Tucker’s 1983 and if it’s the least satisfying of the lot, that’s because it’s got an impossible task. Tony Grisoni’s admirable attempts to tidy up the sprawling narrative of David Peace’s four books mean that the vision of total corruption which is embodied in Peace’s fundamentally untidy storytelling is diluted and comes down to, basically, yet another case of child abuse by a priest. It’s not really that simple of course but Grisoni seems to want closure in a way that Peace doesn’t – there was a similar problem in Brian Helgeland’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential - and the happy ending rings completely false. Nor am I sure about the slightly self-conscious artiness of the visuals and the ever so slightly pretentious narration.
However, there are considerably merits in this story of two parallel redemptions; those of John Piggot (Addy), a gone-to-seed solicitor, and Maurice Jobson (Morrissey), corrupt copper. Both Mark Addy and David Morrissey do memorable work and there’s a powerful showing from Peter Mullen who was a shadowy presence in the first two instalments. There’s another horrible torture sequence and some disturbing flashbacks which I found hard to watch. But as an admirer of the book I was irked by the changes - why change the name of Jimmy Ashworth to Leonard Cole ? – and felt that more time was needed to do justice to the complex plot. The flashbacks to 1974 are well handled though and the progress of the story is fairly clear to those who pay attention.
Some people have been disappointed by Red Riding, focusing on its familiar plot elements, its use of brutality and its simplification of various real-life issues. But this is to ignore the sheer ambition of the project which takes four incredibly complex books and makes a more than honourable effort to condense them into five hours of drama, Throughout, the acting is majestic, the period design quite perfect and the tension taut. It’s a reminder that British TV drama can among the best in the world and that’s something which it’s often all to easy to forget.
The Red Riding Trilogy is presented by Optimum DVD on three separate discs, one for each of the films. The picture quality of each disc is generally well up to par and sometimes excellent. 1974 was shot on 16MM and is presented at an anamorphically enhanced ratio of 1.78:1. This is a pleasing image but deliberately grainy and little muddy at times. 1980 and 1983 are both presented in the Scope ratio of 2.40:1 and look fantastic with stunning colours and plenty of detail. Each film is accompanied by a highly acceptable Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which does justice to both the pithy dialogue and the imaginatively chosen selection of music both original and period. A two-channel Dolby option is also available. Regrettably, there are no subtitles - a major omission.
There are extras on each disc although they are hardly extensive. The first disc contains some deleted scenes, including an alternative ending which might have helped viewers work out some of the bigger picture, and a good interview with Julian Jarrold. The second and third films are also accompanied by deleted scenes – including on 1980 the very funny extended interrogation of Peter Hunter – and irritatingly bland making-of pieces which never seem to get to the point. I would have liked to see a lot more input from Tony Grisoni talking about his approach to the adaptation and a properly structured making-of feature. Given the amount of on-set material and the number of people who could be interviewed, this would surely not have been beyond the bounds of possibility.
Fans of David Peace’s work may feel a little disappointed at the slight superficiality of this adaptation – the omission of the complex second novel 1977 is perhaps symptomatic. But I think that on the whole, it’s an impressive achievement showcasing the best of British acting – in addition to those mentioned we have Jim Carter, Eddie Marsan, Rebecca Hall, David Calder, James Fox and the superb Joseph Mawle whose five minutes as the Ripper are unforgettable – and offering a challenging and compelling experience for all those who can take the darkness and brutality. Optimum’s DVD looks and sounds fine but is slightly disappointing in the extras department.