[14 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We hate to think that the world is an ugly place. Even with a bleak landscape of cynicism and jaded social community surrounding us, we long to believe that people are basically good and that existence, albeit bested by tragedy and pain, is more or less moral. Unfortunately, crime and other hideous acts against humanity rear their all too frequent head to remind us of those well worn ethical cliches: that there is not greater monster than man, that individuals, when not looking for ways to undermine each other, are actually plotting sickening acts of serial madness, and that those empowered with protecting us and who find duty in such deliverance may have ulterior intentions themselves.
Thus we have the Red Riding Quartet, a powerful collection of fiction by UK writer David Peace (an ironic name, indeed). The four novels, each named after a year (Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty, and Nineteen Eighty-Three), center around the infamous “Yorkshire Ripper” case that spooked the seemingly sedate English countryside in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—though it’s really only part of a multi-layered approach. Within each individual narrative, we get subtexts involving personal ambition, police corruption, abuse of power, and that most well worn of “ugly underneath” archetypes—the small, secluded, close knit community rife with redolent secrets. Instead of arguing for crime and punishment as a neat and tidy affair, Peace parlays our already ripe skepticism into a noir of gratuitous grimness.
Now tied together as a theatrical ‘trilogy’ (most of Seventy-Seven has been removed, while the others have been condensed and dramatically reconfigured), the three made for British TV films that make up The Red Riding Trilogy—In the Year of Our Lord 1974, In the Year of Our Lord 1980, and In the Year of Our Lord 1983—argue for their place as true awe-inspiring works of revisionist genius. Certainly, we have seen the set-up before - sleepy little burg, outrageous horror along the fringes, the tenuous links to people of importance and legitimate authority, the able antihero (or in this case, antiheroes) struggling to come up with clues, connections, and conclusions. It’s the typical police procedural path. But like the brilliant Robbie Coltrane vehicle Cracker from the ‘90s, the three different directors in charge of realizing these stories reset the bar so high that it’s impossible to imagine anyone reaching its ridiculously satisfying heights.
We begin with In the Year of Our Lord 1974, following Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), an ambitious reporter who is trying to piece together the seemingly divergent circumstances surrounding some missing (and presumed dead) young girls. Meanwhile, local entrepreneur John Dawson (Sean Bean) is greasing palms and bribing officials to get his mall project approved. As he digs deeper into the case, our journalist finds a troubling relation between the two. As with any circumstance beset by graft and mixed incentives, Dunford is soon circling in on and challenging Dawson - and learning what happens when money and influence by an entire town (including the police force). Shot in a gritty Super 16mm style and brimming with the kind of Me Decade malaise that makes tales like these all the more potent, the first film sets us up for what has to be one of the best motion picture middle acts ever.
In the Year of Our Lord 1980 picks up where the last film left off, with few leads in the Ripper case and a public losing faith in its police force. Enter Peter Hunter (Paddy Constantine), a kind of internal affairs officer sent to Yorkshire to look into claims of corruption and influence. Flashing back to important developments previously unearthed by Dunford, but also opening up a whole other can of bad cop worms in the process, we discover deadly conspiracy and senseless violence around every street corner (or worse, supposedly secure prison cell). With a strong performance by Constantine as well as a labyrinthine narrative that opens as many doors as closes them, Part Two propels us deeper into this unfathomable den of individual iniquity. By the end, we are wondering how far down this diseased rabbit hole goes - and are leery of looking into it much further.
The answer comes crashing into our already bruised psyche with In the Year of Our Lord 1983. One year before the proposed Orwellian breakdown of the state and our situation has gone from awful to alarming. Seeming evil cop Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) is starting to crack, a crisis of conscience making his question his role in recent events. Similarly, a lawyer with personal ties to the Yorkshire police uncovers some horrific information. Finally, the troubling truth about recurring character Reverend Martin Laws (Peter Mullan) is uncovered. Similar to The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo in both its scope and authoritative reach, we see a small amount of redemption hidden inside hideous implications, ‘unholy’ alliances, and a plot perfect example of the past coming back to haunt you.
More than just expertly acted or flawless crafted (hats off to Tony Grisoni for taking four dense and difficult works of fiction and forging them into an electrifying triptych of thrills) The Red Riding Trilogy is one of those experiences that make you wholly reconsider the genre in general. Once you’ve seen the satisfying work of directors Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots), Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) and James Marsh (Man on Wire), once you’ve become immersed in the period precision of the cinematic technique and art design, once you realize that there is no place to go but deeper and darker, you can never look at the standard law and order formula again. Sure, Red Riding consistently works within said parameters, keeping us glued to the screen with promises of answers and false satisfaction sideswipes. But because of how effortlessly it is done, because we never once get antsy during the near six hour running time, we welcome each and every broken pledge.
More importantly, Red Riding is the world devoid of whitewash and whimsy. Though many have claimed that Grisoni actually brightened Peace’s pitch black perspective, this is still a stark, stunningly depressing viewpoint. No one is safe, anyone can (and does) die at any moment, and the wicked always seem to win out over the worthy, or at the very least, the slightly less tainted. We are drawn in by the Ripper and his repugnant acts, but never get the kind of closer that sees an FBI agent ending the cloaked cat and mouse in a hail of heroic small weapons fire.
Red Riding is a series of minor victories, each rotten apple uncovered helping to remove the unrelenting stink from almost a decade of ethical decay. In truth, we hate to ever think that reality is this putrid. In the Red Riding Trilogy, it’s disgusting, diseases, and undeniably great.