By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker, U.K., IFC
In 2001, British satirist Chris Morris drew a great deal of fire from the government and popular press for an episode of his mockumentary series Brass Eye entitled "Paedogeddon!" [The program in question mockingly pondered such matters as why Britain was so completely overrun with pedophiles (some disguising themselves, absurdly, as schoolhouses) and what measures could be taken to protect children from being lured into their clutches (including locking the children up in cabinets, and corralling them in stadiums for the night). With the doleful, self-serious tones of a news broadcaster, Morris ingenuously asked, "Why can we no longer think of the British Isles without the word 'pedoph' in front of them?"
Of course the point of Morris's programâ€”which is both brilliant and in incredibly bad tasteâ€”was not to poke fun at the idea of "interfering with children," but at the mass hysteria, hypocritical moralizing, and even seemingly perverse attraction that the subject causes. And while it might be a stretch to say that there's something weirdly, specifically British about this medley of confused reactions, the United Kingdom does seem to boast more freakish high-profile sex-criminals and child-murderers than most. The existence of Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rosemary West, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, and all the various rippers and stranglers over the years explains the country's peculiar flair for the mythologization of monsters, fueled by conservative ideologues and red-top tabloids, and met with rubber-necking fascination by the general public.
Enter David Peace, a Yorkshireman self-exiled in Tokyo, with a debut quartet of novelsâ€”Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999), Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000), Nineteen Eighty (2001) and Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002)â€”that track a legacy of corruption, ennui, and, yes, pedophilia in the Leeds-Bradford area over the span of those titular years. Hip-deep in the gloomy milieu of Northern England in the Seventies and Eighties, Peace's novels cast a wide net over dozens of characters, including the real-life Yorkshire Ripper and a rogue's gallery of fictional miscreants, from crooked coppers to good-hearted failures to broken victims. Numbering Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon among his inspirations, Peace interweaves the lives and often grisly deaths of these characters in maddeningly intricate ways with the seemingly endless socioeconomic problems of the day: industrial conflict; stagflation; struggles with the IRA; widespread xenophobic distrust of immigrants, minorities, and "gypsies"; and various forms of sexual abuseâ€”an era embroiled in what one character succinctly calls "foockin' chaos."
"We are defined and damned by the crimes of the times that we live in," Peace has said, and his novels are part trial and part exorcism. With a near-Dickensian density of plotting and characterization and noxious, moody atmosphere to burn, Peace's quartet would seem a natural candidate for film adaptation, and in Red Riding the novels have found a venue as a three-part miniseries on British television and now arriving in American theaters. Excising the second novel (along with a dozen characters for reasons of narrative economy) almost entirely due to funding reasons, screenwriter Tony Grisoni has crafted a 300-minute triptych of nearly relentless Northern gloom, beginning and ending with investigations of child abduction, abuse, and murder (sparked by the discovery of the body of a young girl with swan wings stitched to her back), with a mini-investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper's rape-murders sandwiched in the middle.
But it's not all fun. Each episodeâ€”1974, 1980, and 1983â€”casts its own particular pall over the twisted characters and inevitable tragedies, and each episode's director visualizes the story's sense of dismal and inescapable horror in his own way. Julian Jarrold, a British television veteran, whose credits include Cracker and the 2008 version of Brideshead Revisited, shoots the first and most noirish episode in lurid Super-16, lending a certain celluloid fleshiness to the film's Chinatown-esque narrative of a reporter uncovering corruption and depravity. Man on Wire director James Marsh delivers the second film's winding police procedural in 35mm, contrasting warm browns and flat green concrete as it tracks a flawed but earnest constable's search for the Ripper. And shooting with the bright, razor-sharp edges of the RED camera, Anand Tuckerâ€”whose other credits include Shopgirl and the recent Leap Yearâ€”attempts to wrap up all of these plotlines, striking a somewhat heavy-handed tone of redemption and resolution to an otherwise refreshingly ambiguous crime saga.
This final entry is an unfortunate anticlimax to an otherwise gripping series, but then throughout Red Riding the spectator is more enthralled with the mood of mounting terror than with any sort of coherent plotting. Whatever the variations in the color temperatures and overall canniness of the directors' visions, each film sufficiently envelops the viewer in an utterly backwards world where the term "brutalism" describes not only the architecture but also every interpersonal relationship. Friendships, marriages, affairs, and business arrangements all fall under the axe (or the fists, or the drill, or the shotgun) of an incommensurable, interlocking conspiracy guided by all of the worst human impulses. There are redeemable figures, to be sure. The protagonists, played by surprising newcomer Andrew Garfield, the always excellent Paddy Considine, and the criminally underrated comic actor Mark Addy, are all tragically emasculated good guys. And their scant female counterparts seem to fare no better, though Rebecca Hall and Maxine Peak give valiant and touching performances as two of the few women in a vast and brutal patriarchal power struggle.
But befitting a relentless saga of power and exploitation from the lowliest housing project to society's upper echelons, most of these characters are men with black hearts and checkered pasts: Sean Bean as an oily mall-magnate with a turtleneck-and-bouffant look to challenge Warren Beatty in Shampoo; bulldog-faced former droog Warren Clarke as the paunchy, unstable constable fond of toasting, "To the North, where we do what we bloody want!"; Peter Mullan (memorable as the fascist pig Syd in Children of Men) as an all-too-ingratiating vicar in a grim slum that neighbors a nuclear power plant; and Robert Sheehan as the tragic, crystal-eyed bit of rough trade with the thunderously unsubtle name of BJ, who boasts a damning client list and waits for nearly all of the trilogy's running time to divulge it.
Naturally, Red Riding is a lot to swallow in one sitting, and while the atmosphere's unremitting bleakness is potent and indeed would seem to be the very essence of this kind of genre filmmaking, as a single movie it seems a bit overdone, too hard-boiled, less gritty than murky. And whether it's a fault of Peace's source novels or (more likely) the result of its piecemeal production, the trilogy is rife with nonsensical twists, obvious loose ends, and blown opportunities. For all its contemporary relevance, the Ripper subplot seems ancillary, and certain major characters, like David Morrissey's equivocal constable, are never sufficiently developed. With details lost and character arcs nonexistent, the 300-minute version is a good deal less than the sum of its parts, each of which maintains an internal coherence better considered individually.
And this raises the question of why the trilogy was given such a strange hybrid TV-cinema treatment in the first place. Red Riding is television and strong television at that, much better suited to home viewing than big-screen distribution, and its many details and characters would have benefited from a longer running time in a smaller format. In fact, while some think long-format television serials burst fully formed from the head of David Chase the moment The Sopranos hit HBO, the Brits have been doing this for decades, with everything from Prime Suspect and Doctor Who to Dennis Potter and The Prisoner. Where Red Riding is unlikely to impress as a coherent film, it will almost surely find an audience as a modern TV-on-DVD serial alongside The Wire and Lost, in a format that's more forgiving of its Byzantine logic and occasional inconsistencies. For all of Red Riding's immersive power, it's nice to look away once in a while.