A World Stinking on the Bone and Pecked by Sparrows
2009 // UK // Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker // April 15, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
A- - Yorkshire. Is there a more evocative landscape in all of England? The word conjures visions of Wuthering Heights and its doomed lovers, of green dales and simple, working-class folk. Such visions, nurtured on robust helpings of classist romanticism, are nowhere to be found in the Yorkshire of Red Riding. Turn off the M-1, peer out the rain-spotted windows. What do you see? Sad, ragged flats and shops; cruel buildings of steel, concrete, and linoleum, seemingly designed to engender malaise; the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant, pumping God-knows-what into the air, water, and bowels; vacant lots inflamed with rubble, weeds, and grubby children, who aren't so much playing as they are biding their time. And out there, beyond the drone of Leeds, Sheffield, and Hull and the countless, wretched towns, are the moors. There are no trees, just the pitched and rolling Pennines (what passes for mountains in England), clad in heather and huddled under eternally gray skies. The sense of exposure and remoteness is suffocating. England's sun-kissed Isle of Wight might as well be in Monaco, or Timbuktu. The Red Riding film trilogy spends nine years in this miserable dream of Yorkshire, from 1974 to 1983, as the Left's dreams of a bright British future comes crashing down amid economic stagnation and ruin. The tale crosses paths with one of the most notorious serial killers in British history, but the film is not really about him. It's about the sort of place that could give birth to such a creature.
The potency of a film often flows from its story or characters. Red Riding possesses both story and characters in abundance, but its bedrock is a mood, one born of slate skies, lonely ridges, and relentlessly grim housing projects. Screenwriter Tony Grisoni adapted three of David Peace's "Red Riding" quartet of novels to create this trilogy, with directing duties split between film-makers Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker. Each has modest achievements to their name, but there is little in their filmographies that hints at the churning, despairing tone that Red Riding reveals. (Tucker has visited Yorkshire before in When Did You Last See Your Father?, but the setting of Riding is so foreign to that film that it could be on another planet.) Peace was raised in West Yorkshire in the years portrayed in the novels and the films, but by the 1990s he had fled to Japan. There is no romanticism in his vision of the cities and moors of his youth, none of the cock-eyed affection for a particular place that graces the works of so many authors. Red Riding reveals a soul wrestling with the loathsome seeds inside him: the smug malevolence of men who savor their petty authority; the casual contempt for foreigners and women; the everday brutality poorly hidden behind paper-thin walls; the cruelty that grows like cancer from idleness and hopelessness. Peace got out, but he can't get away. Grisoni and the directors, all British, have felt the discomfiting vibrations in the novelist's words, and shaped their own visions of his Yorkshire. Traditionally, there were three Ridings in the county: North, East, and West. The Red Riding of the title's trilogy is not a physical place, but a force of darkness, one that seeps through the ground into the greasy puddles left by yesterday's rains, into tacky basement pubs with last decade's decor, and into the hearts of pitiless men who have made the North into their personal feifdom.
The plot concerns a sprawling maze of corruption and murder that encompasses the West Yorkshire Constabulary, a construction magnate, journalists, lawyers, priests, pimps, and hustlers. It brushes up agains the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, a real-life serial killer who slew and mutilated thirteen women and is currently living the remainder of his days at Broadmoor Hospital. However, the mystery that squats at the nexus of the film is not the Ripper murders, but the disappearance of three little girls. One of them has been discovered on a construction site: tortured, raped, and murdered, with white swan wings stitched to her back. Who committed this horrific crime? Like detectives in a police procedural, we might pin photos of all the principals on a board and draw lines of connection, mark them with question marks and pin bits of evidence in tiny plastic bags to them. Perhaps, before the killer is revealed, we could deduce it on our own. It doesn't matter. The film-makers are less concerned with who is murdering these children than in transporting us to a place and time where such an atrocity could occur with such ease, where the man responsible—and, make no mistake, it is always a man—could go unpunished, even protected.
The scope of the plot is overwhelming; it is unnecessary to attempt to summarize it here, or to catalog the enormous cast of characters. Each chapter of the trilogy focuses on one or more protagonists. They are not so much heroes as they are men of abundant grit and a smear of conscience, who find themselves in situations where conscience can be compromising, or even fatal. Red Riding: 1974 follows Yorkshire Post reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), who is digging into the disappearance and murder of the little girls. In 1980, we meet detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), who the Home Office sends to West Yorkshire to assist the local police in the Ripper investigation, and also probe possible misconduct in the Constabulary. 1983 splits its time between West Yorkshire detective Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), whose long-repressed scruples are beginning to gnaw at him, and John Piggott (Mark Addy), a bargain-basement lawyer reluctantly drawn into the case of a mentally retarded boy scapegoated for the murder of the children. Many of the actors convey everything we need to know about their characters by their mere presence. We hear the name of nefarious Yorkshire millionaire John Dawson drop into conversation, and when he appears with the face of Sean Bean, the chilly menace we feel multiplies threefold. Eddie Marsan portrays a repugnant Post reporter who wheedles Dunford with the nickname "Scoop," lending the man a slathering of nihilism with just his gnomish sneer. Then there's Peter Mullan, whose twinkling eyes should put us at ease; however, his local priest has an oddly close relationship with seemingly every woman in the story. Other actors seem to have been cast for their countenances or voices alone: jowly Warren Clarke as a thunderous senior detective; Sean Harris as a malevolent weasel of a cop; John Henshaw as a portly Post editor; Julia Ford as a cowed widow. The nearly incomprehensible rumblings of the Yorkshire dialect serve as the soundtrack to the film, along with snatches of pop and soul from the era, drifting out of jukeboxes and phonographs.
The structure of Red Riding is akin to that of Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone: the mystery expands without resolution, collapses around a seemingly unrelated event, and then expands again. After Dunford's haunted search for the truth about the missing girls culminates in violence and further cover-up, the Yorkshire Ripper murders focus our gaze on the essence of the trilogy, the staggering corruption of every civil institution in the county. In the third chapter, another girl goes missing for the first time in nine years, and the film acquires a tint of the The Searchers, as detective Jobson and the lawyer Piggott each grope blindly towards her while the clock goes tick-tock. There is much of the story that is left unresolved, and those who need a complete explanation for all that they observe will be left disappointed. Significant plot points occur off-screen, and much is left to implication, insinuation, and imagination. No matter; there is a visceral quality to the trilogy's vision, one that transcends the specifics of its story to convey a devastating aura of despair which occludes a happy ending, or even a tomorrow that looks any different from today. The directors convey this sensibility with varying degrees of success. Remarkably, Jarrold, veteran of costume dramas such as Great Expectations and Brideshead Revisited, seems to understand Peace's world the most intuitively, and his stylistic choices are a piece with the tone of Red Riding. The grain of the 16 mm film he employs, the scenes that glide in and out of focus, the expressionistic quality to his lingering close-ups: they rhyme with this Yorkshire and its claustrobic flats and eerie parking garages. Tucker's warmer approach is the roughest fit, with its clean digital video and usually unnecessary stylistic flourishes. The third chapter seems intended to lift us, ever so gently, out of the preceding four hours of gloom. Not to a better Yorkshire, but far away to somewhere else, where sun shines once in a while and little girls are loved instead of butchered. Both 1983 and 1980, to a lesser degree, become unfortunately enamored with the more conventional aspects of the story, the love affairs and revelatory confessions and bloody standoffs. Still, Red Riding is a supreme example of the sum being greater than the parts. The experience of these films, taken together, is rich and devastating, a transportive noir epic squirming with the black beetles of a failed society.