Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.27.10


In God’s Country
A dark trilogy from northern England

RED RIDING 1974: Directed by Julian Jarrold. Written by Tony Grisoni, based on the books by David Peace. Cinematography, Rob Hardy. Music, Adrian Johnston. Starring Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, Sean Bean and Anthony Flanagan. IFC Films, 2010. R. 105 minutes.

RED RIDING 1980: Directed by James Marsh. Written by Tony Grisoni, based on the books by David Peace. Cinematography, Igor Martinovic. Ediing, Jinx Godfrey. Music, Dickon Hinchliffe. Starring Paddy Considine, David Morrissey, Sean Harris, Shaun Dooley, Peter Mullan, Robert Sheehan, Maxine Peake and Tony Pitts. IFC Films, 2010. R. 97 minutes.

RED RIDING 1983: Directed by Anand Tucker. Written by Tony Grisoni, based on the books by David Peace. Cinematography, David Higgs. Editing, Trevor Waite. Music, Barrington Pheloung. Starring David Morrissey, Chris Walker, Shaun Dooley, Tony Mooney, Mark Addy, Daniel Mays, Gerard Kearns, Robert Sheehan and Peter Mullan. IFC Films, 2010. R. 106 minutes.

Andrew Garfield in Red Riding 1974
Paddy Considine and Sean Harris in Red Riding 1980
David Morrissey in Red Riding 1983

Poor Eddie Dunford. As a reporter in the first installment of the Red Riding trilogy, young Eddie (Andrew Garfield) gets assigned to cover a young girl’s murder in a town where everyone seems capable of doing harm. To Eddie, a shallow but fashionable opportunist, the case is dreary grunt work — that is, until it connects with the cases of two girls murdered years before. Without knowing it, Eddie is in the neighborhood of what will become known (in history as well as the sequels to Red Riding) as the Yorkshire Ripper murders, a series of killings that terrorized northern England in the 1970s. Perplexingly, neither Eddie’s colleagues nor the police seem to care, suggesting at first a homegrown cynicism and more gradually, a willful disregard for the truth. Actually, a wingnut reporter named Barry (Anthony Flanagan) views everything as diabolical, but his beliefs only underscore the collective blind eye being turned by everyone else. Corruption is the mile-wide theme of Red Riding, a provincial, disorienting and paranoid trilogy that makes the case that pettiness and self-interest not only foster violence, but may in fact be responsible for it.

When Barry is killed in a freak sheet glass accident, a demise worthy of the early years of the X-Files, even a casual observer of Red Riding (or say, anyone having difficulty tracking the heavy accents) has to ask whether Eddie isn’t in over his head. The entire region seems to have drunk the apathy Kool-Aid; the man with the pitcher is John Dawson (Sean Bean, from The Fellowship of the Ring), a seedy developer on whose land the murdered girl is discovered. Bean’s performance is one of several that introduce some oxygen into Red Riding — Rebecca Hall, as the mysterious mother of one of the earlier murdered girls, is another — a film in which every room is thickly ringed with cigarette smoke. Chalk it up to atmosphere, to the excesses of the era or to director Julian Jarrold’s attempt to suggest toxicity and contamination. Just don’t chalk it up to understatement.

The first installment of Red Riding is more artful than art. It can be smug and sneering in its portrayal of public officials, a representation many might call cinema vérité, but the sneers somehow lack teeth. It is possible that Garfield is miscast as Eddie, whose slight frame and cherubic face suggest a boy still wet behind the ears, which by extension makes him seem more protected than he should be. Eddie, when he starts asking the wrong people the right questions, gets into all kinds of trouble, some of which is interesting. But overall the first installment is both obvious and impenetrable, like an episode of The Wire without any payoff. Red Riding means well, but sometimes a film about the provinces is, well, provincial. — Jason Blair

Though you can, in theory, watch any of the interlocking Red Riding films on their own, peeling them apart may prove a little difficult once you’ve been through the whole lot. Characters circle the central knot, a tangle of unfettered corruption, greed and cruelty. Desire draws them in, or they’re seduced by a moment of kindness, a mistake, an opportunity. And nearly all of them are spit right back out in worse shape than when they started.

James Marsh (Man on Wire)’s Red Riding 1980, the most straightforward of the three films, follows Peter Hunter (a likable Paddy Considine), who’s sent to covertly investigate the police working on the Yorkshire Ripper case, which has replaced 1974’s missing girls as the most obvious menace in the area. This isn’t Hunter’s first investigation in the North; flashbacks peer at an earlier assignment related to 1974’s bloody finale. Personal reasons took Hunter away from that case, but his popularity wasn’t boundless then, either. From the start, the northern cops are resistant, surly and uncooperative. They’re going to catch their Ripper, Bob Craven (Sean Harris) insists, with creepy possessiveness. But what Hunter quickly picks up is that the problems in this tired, worn-out, perpetually overcast town run deeper than the already horrific matter of a serial killer. 

1983, directed by Anand Tucker (Shopgirl, Leap Year), takes on a wispy quality heightened by frequent flashbacks that further complicate the film’s three-lead narrative. In quiet segments dotted with vague voiceover, BJ (Robert Sheehan) gets out of prison and returns to Yorkshire, burdened by resentment and memories.  John Piggott (Mark Addy), a relatively jovial lawyer, arrives home from his mother’s funeral. A neighbor soon presses him to visit her son, a confessed killer from the first film, and the conversation that results tosses Piggott neatly into the burbling cauldron of local secrets. A familiar face from all three films, Detective Police Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), bears the weight of the flashbacks as a new case calls up his demons: Another girl has gone missing, like the girls nine years earlier. In 1974, writer Tony Grisoni and director Julian Jarrold hewed closely to Eddie Dunford’s perspective, carefully limiting what we saw of Jobson and his colleagues. Tucker deals out the missing pieces slowly, alternating Jobson’s version of history with one frustratingly mishandled subplot involving a medium, Mandy Wymer (Saskia Reeves), who claims she can hear the missing girls.

Mandy, like Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall) in 1974 and Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake) in 1980, begins as a promising character only to be swiftly sidelined by an underdeveloped relationship with one of the male leads. In the North, women stay at home, grieving or awaiting a man’s arrival — provided they’ve not been kidnapped or killed. Red Riding never satisfyingly engages with its female characters, or the relationship they have to the corruption that seeps through the dark, dank countryside. 

Tucker provides the most egregious misstep where his female characters are concerned: a murdered girl, horribly mutilated, looks, as Manohla Dargis tartly noted in The New York Times, “as beautiful as a carved Della Robbia angel.” It’s not that the films require more attentively shot scenes of blood and brutality. The problem is that Tucker’s image leaches all horror from what’s been done to the girl, rendering her irrelevant, just a terrible step on someone else’s journey.

Despite the disconnect in that telling scene, Red Riding has the look of a film that should be taken seriously. All three films — each shot with a different camera and by a different cinematographer — share a strong aesthetic that highlights ordinary men, casual violence and the occasional muted sparkle of beauty. Yorkshire’s buildings are almost uniformly dull and plain, the rooms full of smoke, the inhabitants clad in browns and grays. Only a hotel, a transitory place, offers a splash of color. The bleak, perpetually threatening skies are so lovingly shot that a flash of blue borders on unforgettable. 

Red Riding’s fragmented narrative adds to the sense of sameness among many of its characters, who are hard to track as their relevance peaks and recedes. But certain performances stand out: Considine makes Hunter’s dry competence a bright contrast to the compromised men around him, and Morrissey, under large glasses and awkward hair, finds Jobson’s breaking point and hovers on it for most of 1983. Harris, as cop Bob Carver, swiftly and effectively alternates bland disingenuousness with feral cruelty.

Character, though, plays second fiddle to theme. The establishment — police, church, business, even family — is fatally flawed, or at least never satisfying for the men on whom Red Riding focuses; they cheat on their wives and are late to their parents’ funerals. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Something is rotten in the state of Yorkshire. You get the picture. But in the third film, Grisoni works hard to invoke a yet bigger picture, a grandiose statement on the evil men do. The psychic is taken seriously; mentions of a “wolf” who steals little girls away multiply. A sense of inevitability permeates the damp air. Throughout, good men turn violent, better men are destroyed and, as ever, change only comes from within. You might call it biblical, or Shakespearean, or you might find that for all its British bleakness and grim horrors, Red Riding winds itself up to an overwrought, clichéd climax, full of floating feathers and familiar devils. Red Riding simply doesn’t live up to its billing as “one of the cinematic events of the year.” The elegant production and excellent performances are a diversion from what’s lacking in the screenplay: a compelling reason to spend five hours of your life being reminded that misery loves nothing more than to replicate itself.  — Molly Templeton

The Red Riding trilogy starts Friday, May 28, at the Bijou