Make it Snappy: ‘Red Riding Trilogy’

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 04/08/10More articles
Journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) surveys the damage after West Yorkshire police torch a Gypsy camp on land that construction magnate John Dawson (Sean Bean) wants for development in "Red Riding Trilogy"'s first film, set in 1974.

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 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” has a 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 such elements as scaffolds, 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 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 outsiders 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” – his older colleagues quickly dismiss him on that basis as a “young Turk” not likely to last a month.

In Dunford’s effort to cover breaking news of yet another 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 and 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 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 Brit version of Josh Brolin’s lip-smacking portrayal of 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 coming to town, Manchester police detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), 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 of moving South, Hunter’s appearance coincides with news reports of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and the Yorkshire police’s derisive jibes of him as a “Roman” – Catholic, that is. Hunter’s joined by detective Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake) – this film’s doomed romance – 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 disloyal choices. Attorney John Piggott (Mark Addy) is pressured by his old neighbor to help her mentally challenged son, locked up for the child murders; she appeals to Piggott’s shared roots in the estates with the reminder, “It’s us!” Paired with this, the detective Maurice Jobson, so often the water-carrier of his superiors, realizes he sent the wrong man is prison. And BJ returns as well, much like an avenging angel.

Although “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 – it also carries the metaphorical theme of redemption that emerges through the images of angels, horribly mutilated in the flesh as injured swans and innocent children, witnesses all. When John Piggott emerges, in a cloud of light-shot pigeon down, 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 words of BJ. These are spoken in voice-over from the sea shore, far to the South – like Ismael, he survives 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." "Deadwood" creator David Milch told me several years ago in an interview that he thought if Dickens were alive today, he'd be working in this medium we now are calling long-form television. 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.

A shorter version of this review appears on page 8 of the April 8, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Though “Red Riding Trilogy” on the big screen closes tonight in Ithaca so it's no longer just an hour’s drive away, check out other screenings at Cinemapolis, 120 E. Green St., Ithaca, online at 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).

Embed code for trailer:

TAGS: Red Riding Trilogy film, David Peace, Northern Noir, Tony Grisoni, Revolution Films, Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker, Sean Bean, Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, Peter Mullan, Warren Clarke, Paddy Considine, Maxine Peake, Mark Addy,David Morrissey
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.4/5 (18 votes cast)

Comments powered by Disqus

Local Entertainment Archive


Talk to Us!
We want you to know that your opinion matters. Please complete our online form and give us your feedback today.