**½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C
THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1974
starring Andrew Garfield, Sean Bean, Warren Clarke, Rebecca Hall
screenplay by Tony Grisoni, based on the novel Red Riding: Nineteen Seventy-Four David Peace
directed by Julian Jarrold
THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1980
starring Paddy Considine, Jim Carter, Warren Clarke, Sean Harris
screenplay by Tony Grisoni, based on the novel Red Riding: Nineteen Eighty David Peace
directed by James Marsh
THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1983
starring Mark Addy, David Morrissey, Jim Carter, Warren Clarke
screenplay by Tony Grisoni, based on the novel Red Riding: Nineteen Eighty-Three David Peace
directed by Anand Tucker
by Bryant Frazer Red Riding, adapted by screenwriter Tony Grisoni into three movies from four novels by David Peace, is an awfully downbeat thing that's difficult to classify. It's not really a mystery, because the central crimes are barely the point (at least in the first two films), and the question isn't whodunit, but who among all those involved is not yet corrupt. It's not a police procedural, because the only effective police work we see is of the thuggish, back-room variety. In its specificity of time and place--nine years in Yorkshire, a county in northern England--it recalls James Ellroy's novels about Los Angeles cops in the 1940s and '50s. But Ellroy's stories were bracing because their point of view came from inside a department dominated by bigotry and machismo and tormented by its own failings. Each of the Red Riding stories comes at the situation mostly from an outsider's perspective, elevating a principled crusader to the high ground, then having the corrupt institution take potshots at him, decimating his footing.
The first sucker is Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a cocky young journalist who earns the nickname "Scoop" from his skeptical colleagues as he starts working the Yorkshire crime beat. A serial murderer is terrorizing the locals, kidnapping children who are never heard from again. Dunford investigates by banging the comely parent of one long-missing girl, which pastime puts him in dutch with the local constabulary. Two of Yorkshire's finest jump him in a car park and subject him to unpleasant and excruciating-looking acts of brutality.
Dunford is an insufferable fellow, smugly confident to the point where self-assuredness becomes smarm. Does Garfield simply botch the performance? As the film plays out, Dunford becomes a lot less interested in playing the hero and Garfield's initial amplification of the kid's weaselly super-confidence starts to make a bit more sense. It's still a miscalculation--Dunford's eventual failure to do the right thing would be harder to take if the character he played ever seemed truly worthy of our rooting interest.
Rebecca Hall is fine as the grieving mother who takes Dunford into her bed, although she too is saddled with a role that's emotionally incoherent until the pieces of the puzzle fall into place late in the film. (She eventually declares, "I'll fuck anything in trousers," and the movie barely seems to notice its flirtation with self-parody.) Said jigsaw-completion is urged along by music cues designed to clue you in whenever you're seeing something important. Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) shoots all this in a distractingly self-conscious style, with his Super16 film stock yielding an image that's grainy and sometimes downright milky, as though the movie were photographed in a pea-soup fog of memory. That description overstates the lyricism of the results. Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1974 tries to be engagingly flamboyant, dreamy, and weird, but it tends annoyingly towards odd and unbalanced framings, with heavy plane-of-focus effects in the cinematography that suggest Jarrold thinks he's Kieslowski.
Directed by Man on Wire's James Marsh, Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1980 is the strongest entry in the trilogy, owing largely to it being the toughest and most straightforward. The story lurches forward six years and deals with Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), a Manchester policeman whose bosses assign him to take a shot at catching the Yorkshire Ripper, stomping all over the professional pride--and corrupt self-interest--of the local cops, some of whom make their encore appearance here. When the killer finally materializes, with a confession, in police custody, Hunter pushes back with his belief that one of the murders was a copycat killing. Things don't go so well from there; Hunter spent time in West Yorkshire before, investigating the violent events that closed out the first film, and his work then apparently earned him a nickname among the force: "Saint Cunt." He's reminded of that sobriquet early on by one of the very policemen he's meant to be riding herd over. Never forget.
This film digs deeper into the institutional rot among the police, who are this time closing up ranks against the new adversary in their midst. Hunter is quickly revealed to harbour frailties that compromise his status as a moral crusader, such as an extramarital sexual weakness for his direct report (Maxine Peake). As clues point to the increasingly frightening milieu inside the constabulary (rather than the scary world outside), there is the sense of a noose tightening around Hunter's neck. Marsh shoots this in widescreen Super35, but he doesn't employ the wide aspect ratio to expand the canvas. Instead, he gets in close, using the frame to create negative space that emphasizes the vulnerability of the characters. The picture has a tight, closed-in noir atmosphere. The whole thing feels like a trap.
But Red Riding loses its bearings completely in its final third, directed by Anand Tucker (Leap Year) with a style that tilts towards the lurid. This is the pulpiest, most obvious segment for sure, featuring a fat, porn-addicted solicitor called Piggott and a simple-minded fall guy named Myshkin. It's also the most sensationalistic, depicting one blue-faced little girl discovered among the Yorkshire rubble under clean, crisp lighting that would suit a 1990s-era perfume commercial. The high-resolution digital cameras that shot 1983 deliver gorgeous, almost grainless images that somehow feel tawdrier than those in the first two films, given the downbeat narrative environs. The film is necessarily pretty queasy-making stuff, and Tucker lacks the chops to elevate the material. (Seriously, what was there in this guy's résumé to suggest he could handle a movie about a ring of unrepentant pedophiles, complete with underground rape chamber?)
Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1983 is partly about the marginal redemption of policeman Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), who appeared in both previous films and naturally figures in the ongoing cover-up. However, by 1983 it seems he's had enough. Tormented by his role in all the injustice and, specifically, his failure to do more to expose the malfeasance of the last 10-year period, he's finally stirred to action by the disappearance of one more young girl and the de rigueur campaign to frame a local innocent for kidnap and murder. John Piggott (Mark Addy) is the sluggish, slovenly White Knight who, shouldering a history that dovetails with Red Riding's whole sordid narrative, becomes determined that justice will be done.
This is the first of Grisoni's trio of scripts to feel rushed, bored, and skeptical of an audience's ability to follow along. The first time we hear a high-ranking police official raise a glass "to the North, where we do what we want," it's a diminishing echo of a line from 1974 that was actually a bit chilling in its fuck-you sense of pride and entitlement. In this film it's uttered repeatedly, ham-handedly, in case anyone fails to recognize its allegedly haunting significance. I found myself longing for a twirled handlebar moustache. Truly lazy shit unfolds here, like a subplot involving Jobson's tryst with a local psychic (Saskia Reeves), or a climactic reveal that--and here I'm trying to avoid an outright spoiler--exploits and revels in a fashionable stereotype of kiddie-fiddlers. The over-reliance on expository flashbacks doesn't help much, nor does a last-minute semi-happy ending that Tucker shoots in excruciatingly cheesy slo-mo. And so Red Riding whimpers its way to an unconvincing and inconsequential finale.
At roughly five-and-a-half hours in length, Red Riding occupies a strange netherworld between film and television. It doesn't have the narrative advantage you'd expect from such a lengthy production, since, again, these three films have actually been compressed from four separate books--Peace's mammoth quartet included a 1977 instalment. And, because it was clearly made for television, it lacks the lavish level of formal control that's generally associated with carefully-crafted feature films. It also lacks scope. Though Marsh hints tantalizingly at the world outside the investigation in the opening credits sequence of 1980, there's very little sense of what it felt like for the communities that were terrorized by these killers.
Assigning the three different films to three different directors may have looked like a great idea on paper, but in practice it throws the story off balance. For example, a single director might have better been able to ensure some sort of coherent throughline for crucial characters like Maurice Dobson and the Reverend Martin Laws (Peter Mullen), who now stick out like sore thumbs when they're suddenly foregrounded for the final film. The experience of Red Riding is disorienting, and not in the good way. Grisoni eschews moral shading and nuance in the evil universe depicted here, opting instead for "We do what we want, GRAR!" Some of the characterizations come off initially as silly and later as overly fatalistic. Red Riding is dark and cynical and highly contrived. There's a safety to it, as its drama plays out on a tiny stage, a cruel little diorama where innocence is upstaged by sadism and kindness is flanked by betrayal. It flatters us for noticing what a brutish place the world is.
In that, it has its appeal. It does boast fine performances. But its elevation to event status by prestigious film festivals, who treated this glorified TV movie like some audacious masterpiece of world cinema, oversells it. It's an intelligent but rote mystery story that plays like David Fincher's Zodiac, except with stock characters and less miraculous, mesmerizing detail. It's like an arty airplane novel: plainly grim and simply plotted, yet just propulsive enough to keep you turning the pages.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The 1080p transfer on the IFC Films Blu-ray Disc of the Red Riding trilogy verges on excellent: faithfully reproducing the chunky 16mm grain and aggressively manipulated colour schemes of 1974; conveying the finer grain structure of 1980, with its palette of muted blues and oranges; and rendering the almost noiseless, largely desaturated images from the Red One camera used on 1983 with a spooky clarity. Visible digital artifacts are minimal in the MPEG-4/AVC-encoded picture, even though more than five hours of content were squeezed onto one double-layer BD--an impressive technical feat! Without comparing the BD to the HD master, it's hard to say what aspects (such as colour reproduction or shadow detail) may have suffered. A look at stats for the entire disc shows 18 mbps as the average video bitrate across the board, so more bits were not thrown to the grainiest of the three features, as might be expected.
I did notice one distracting analog artifact. In several shots from 1974 that were filmed with a stationary camera, and in at least one shot from 1980, the picture develops a mild but unmistakable case of vertical jitters, with the image shifting up and down a single pixel or two from frame to frame, indicating some minor registration problems during the film-scanning or telecine process. If the Blu-ray masters were created from film elements that were used to make theatrical release prints, then this reflects a problem with the Blu-ray transfers. If, on the other hand, the Blu-ray masters were output from digital files at the same time the broadcast masters were created, the jitter may have already been "baked in" during the original digital capture from the camera negative. Either way, it's a minor annoyance--but certainly not the sort of problem you expect to detect in a 2010 theatrical release.
Audio is fine as far as it goes, with some ambient noise and a few directional sound effects livening up the 640 kbps, 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. (They're not noted on the box, but 224 kbps Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are included as well.)
Extras have been dutifully assembled for each film in the trilogy and are presented here in standard-def on a separate, money-saving DVD-5. (IFC's money, not yours, dummy.) The Julian Jarrold interview that goes along with 1974 (11 mins.) is straight-up EPK stuff--ugly footage shot against ugly wallpaper, with Jarrold jabbering in between the appearances, on black-and-white title cards, of questions that were apparently being put to him by an off-camera interviewer. The making-of pieces for 1980 (19 mins.) and 1983 (7 mins.) aren't any more substantial. The longer one, in particular, is shamelessly padded with shapeless B-roll footage. They'll be fascinating to people who have no idea how a movie is shot and utterly redundant for the rest of us.
Deleted scenes all around don't add up to much (22 mins. in total, they're split fairly evenly among the three films), though there are a couple of elided dream sequences/hallucinations experienced by Piggott in 1983 that the film's ending appears to have been designed specifically to echo. There's also a three-minute piece covering the whole trilogy that the DVD menu describes as "behind the scenes," but it's pure promotional material, rife with spoilers and devised solely to sell tickets.
A series of rudimentary :60 TV spots (presumably they aired on IFC in the U.S.) plus a decent theatrical trailer round out the package without adding joy. While even lousy theatrical trailers can be nice to have for the sake of history, somebody needs to disabuse distributors of the notion that the most perfunctory efforts of their marketing teams need be preserved for the ages. When you first fire up the disc, SD trailers for Five Minutes of Heaven, The Killer Inside Me, and Boogie Woogie are shoved into your eyeholes, though they are skippable via remote control. Small favours! Originally published: November 15, 2010.