“To the north, where we do what we want!”
Based on the quartet of novels by Yorkshire-born author David Peace – chronologically titled 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1983 – the Red Riding teleplays produced by Britain’s Channel 4 omit the third book and compact and distill elements down to a trilogy format, something that apparently doesn’t sit well with ardent fans of the books, but for those totally unfamiliar with Peace’s epic crime series, each film is one grim and sometimes unforgettable experience, and another notable entry in that happy sub-genre called British Bleakism.
Peace’s city crime saga bears some similarities to Robert Towne’s Chinatown (1974): all levels of the police regime (in this case, the Yorkshire police department) and a wealthy developer (Bob Craven, played by Sean Bean) are deeply involved in foul business ventures (porn mags, as well as a mega-mall on land occupied by squatters), and when one of the group is suspected of some recent child molestations and killings, blame is assigned to a local nobody to ensure the money and mall development aren’t endangered.
The first teleplay, 1974, deals with new cub crime reporter Eddie Dunford, and his increasing obsession with a series of child sex assaults/mutilations/killings. Although the police arrest a mentally challenged lad named Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), Eddie uncovers other evidence, which leads him to suspect a prominent local figure whose interests in young girls goes way below the age of consent. Eddie also encounters a police department and their brutal torture methods usually reserved for uncooperative suspects.
The second teleplay, 1980, involves an internal affairs detective, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), chosen to ensure that the Yorkshire Ripper murder case is being handled properly after charges of corruption have made Manchester superiors very uncomfortable.
Hunter’s own personal affairs endanger his ability to maintain his internal investigation, which shifts from the Ripper killings to a pair of detectives that survived a club massacre involving Eddie Dunford.
The third and final teleplay, 1983, deals with three narratives: lawyer John Piggot (Mark Addy) reluctantly agreeing to represent convicted child killer Michael Myshkin; Yorkshire detective Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) losing his ability to stomach the rot and vile cruelty of his colleagues; and recently released prostitute BJ (Robert Sheehan) who returns to Yorkshire in search of the source of his pain - a villain who also happens to be a silent partner in the child killings, and participant of untold molestations from the seventies.
Peace’s novels are apparently very detailed in their description of ugly behaviour, but the filmmakers managed to evoke enough repulsive cruelty and off-screen torture in the three teleplays that it’s hard not to remain upset days after seeing the complete trilogy.
Tony Grisoni’s teleplays were directed by three separate directors, each of whom apparently brought in their own crews, composers, and chose different mediums to shoot their respective parts – one on film, two on rival HD formats – but the style changes work for the trilogy because they distinguish the time periods, as well as the narrative angles where different sets of characters are related to events from 1974.
The trilogy’s continuity also comes from having one screenwriter, a rich widescreen visual style that blenders time periods, and dour music scores that move from abstract minimalism towards minimal thematic statements. There’s also a recurrence of a few characters (some in flashbacks) and a kind of enduring misery that affects anyone who tries to penetrate the police department’s code of secrecy.
Probably the trilogy’s most important elements for viewers are moments of revenge – Eddie Dunford’s tormentors, for example, suffer quite badly later on – as well as having one detective struggle with the immoral code of silence he toasted with colleagues during the wedding of his chief’s daughter.
Whether it’s the characters, the events, or the physical locations, Yorkshire is depicted as a miserable city smothered by a grey mist that corrodes the morals of its highest officials. Peace’s dramas give little hope of anyone coming out alive or victorious, and there’s an immense waste of life in each teleplay that’s never really counter-balanced by the trilogy’s finale. As far as depressing crime dramas go, Red Riding is wrenching in its Michael Reevesian misery, and it’s something that might make it hard to digest for crime fans wanting neat and clean wrap-ups for despicable acts.
The trilogy does have its share of weaknesses, and perhaps the biggest flaw is the fragmented nature of the teleplays that sometimes makes it tough to follow the characters. (The severe Manchester accents will be tough going for unaccustomed North Americans, but that’s a regional problem for non-Brits.)
Julian Jarrod’s direction in the first episode is the most stylistic and arresting; his use of pastel colours and ugly seventies architecture is sublime, as are the visual motifs of objects and characters moving between different focal planes. Jarrod, whose career includes episodes of Cracker (1993-1996) as well as the comedy Kinky Boots (2005), knows how to create elegiac grimness, but the 1974 teleplay does have some confusing aspects, such as some of the case suspects Eddie Dunford visits, who pop up with insufficient intros for the viewers’ benefit.
There’s also the finale that has Dunford given a weapon by his tormentors who clearly were out to destroy his mind and body, if not outright kill him, and Dunford’s ability to reclaim his car and revisit his hotel room when the police clearly want him out of town, if not in a shallow grave.
The flashbacks are sometimes confusing in the final teleplay, but 1983 benefits from some very strong performances by Daniel Mays as Michael Myshkin, and David Morrissey as the guilt-ridden Detective Jobson. Also of note is Mark Addy (The Full Monty) as John Piggot, who like 1980’s Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz) is best known for comedic roles.
Just as unique are the directors, including 1980’s James Marsh who won an Oscar for the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, and 1983’s Anand Tucker, best-known for the dramas Shopgirl (2005) and Hilary and Jackie (1998).
Definitely worth a peek when the series makes its way to North America and DVD, but this is certainly one of the bleakest productions around.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan