Sunday, April 25, 2010

Seeing Red

On the whole, I'm glad I didn't take in the Red Riding Trilogy all in one go. I could have. My local theater ran them all at a special discount on one night. I think that might have been a bit much to take. One a night was just fine.

Red Riding 1974 (2009, directed by Julian Jarrold) sets things in motion. Someone is abducting and murdering young girls in Yorkshire. The police claim that they haven't any leads, but that doesn't stop young crime reporter Eddie Dunford from picking at the threads of the case and unraveling it. It's a story that leads him straight into a swamp of police corruption and shady real estate deals, to say nothing of s paedophile who sews the wings of a swan to the back of one of his victims. Pretty soon, the police take an interest in Dunford and begin pointing him in directions that serve their interests. They certainly don't serve Dunford's or the public's.

Red Riding 1980 (2009, directed by James Marsh) picks up the pieces of the first film, some six years later when the case of the Yorkshire Ripper opens the Yorkshire police up to scrutiny. The central figure in this film is one Peter Hunter, an investigator brought in from Manchester to sort things out. Hunter had his investigation of the Yorkshire police interrupted after the events of 1974, and he's looking to pick up where he left off with this case. This is complicated by dissension in the ranks of his own hand-picked squad of investigators, among whose number is an old girlfriend.

Red Riding 1983 (2009, directed by Anand Tucker) splits its purview to two protagonists: Maurice Jobson, a cop who we've seen in the previous two movies turning a blind eye to corruption that disgusts him, and John Piggott, a lawyer who is hired to represent the feeble-minded patsy that was framed for the child murders in the first film. Another child abduction sets off the action in this film, but the movie is constructed of the invisible elements of the first movie, and hinges upon it.

These movies were made for the UK's Channel 4 and in addition to being made by three different directors, none of whom is known for gritty, miserablist noir like this, they were filmed on three different film stocks. This has the effect of giving each of them a certain visual "feeling." The first film, for instance, has a distinctive visual murk resulting from filming on 16mm film, while the second film has the merciless clarity of deep-focus 35mm and the third makes use of high-def video to play with exotic lighting patterns and effects. Yet, in spite of the visual diversity of the filmmaking, there's also a visual unity that stems from the setting itself. It's a dour, dreary place, the north of England, even in the sunlight.

The movies are populated by some truly scabrous characters, and one strains at the thought that any police department in the developed world could possibly be as corrupt as the West Yorkshire police. Still, it has the ring of truth, even in a fictional setting. Our various protagonists are a mixed lot. Eddie Dunford is the purest of these characters, given that he's young and uncorrupted and given that Andrew Garfield plays him as a fairly likable crusader. Paddy Considine's Hunter is a bit more world weary, weighed down by his own personal transgressions and by a sense of failure regarding the events of the first film. Piggott and Dobson in the third film, played respectively by David Morrisey and Mark Addy, are both completely tarnished.

On the matter of filmmaking, these are made by expert hands, but there's a disconnect between the elan of the films and their narratives. The screenplay--all three films are adapted by Tony Grisoni from the novels by David Peace--takes some awful turns. Most disconcerting is the tendency of our various protagonists to become sexually involved with witnesses on very short acquaintance. This is most jarring in the first one, in which Dunford falls into bed with Rebecca Hall's grieving mother after she is clearly offended by him and the way he goes about his profession, but the way Jobson hooks up with the medium in the third movie is almost comical in comparison. Do real people behave like this? Probably not. And, while on the whole it is the second movie that seems under the tightest narrative control, it still asks us to believe that a hit squad of cops can get away with a mass shooting at a nightclub. More globally, the movie posits a universe in which the cops protect a child murderer as a matter keeping corrupt business propositions viable, one of which is a trade in pornography. This, even after the initial case is resolved. For the most part, it's best not to think about the narrative. If you do, the whole house of cards might come tumbling down. Best to groove on the moods and moral ambiance of the whole project, because as a mood piece, Red Riding is a piece of work.

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