Red Riding Trilogy (UK, 2009)

No way out

No way out

Being a bloke whose formative years were before Gazza cried at the 1990 World Cup Finals, tears are something that are a foreign land to me (except when my dad died). So when I found a tear trickling down my cheek at the end of the final part of this trilogy, based on four David Peace novels, I knew I’d been watching an extraordinary set of films.

The portrayal of West Yorkshire, where I live, during the 1970s and 1980s, when I – thankfully – wasn’t here, is as bleak a picture as you could hope (?) to see. The pervasive police corruption (I notice today it’s been announced that complaints against the police in Britain have gone up 10%) that drains society of the rule of law is starkly presented. Peace’s novels are a mixture of fact, obviously the Yorkshire Ripper and I remember the case of the man, with learning difficulties, who was ‘fitted up’ for crimes he didn’t commit, and the fiction of artistic license. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad in Yorkshire, or indeed Britain (though the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were being incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit at this time), as the films show but there’s no doubt that it was that bad for some.

The noir narrative is difficult to follow, it’s condensed to such an extent – through the use of ellipses – that audiences have to work hard to keep up; as it should be in challenging drama. The large array of characters, brilliantly played by an cast of top actors, adds to the requirement to concentrate. Unusually, each of the three films, 1974, 1980 and 1983, are shot in different formats but despite this, and three directors, the trio are unified by the bleakness of the vision.

Spoilers. The focus of the investigations are into the disappearance and murders of young girls which the police, for reasons of corruption, fail to resolve, other than arresting and torturing confessions out of the innocent. Clearly such narrative problems are highly emotive, there are few things that can encourage anger quicker than the sexual abuse, and murder, of children. However, these always remain in the background, we never see the abductions and hardly see the suffering families because the focus is on the investigations: of a journalist in the first; of the police into police conduct in the second; and the police in the third. So the missing children are abstract and felt only in the way a missing child in reality is noted: we can feel bad and angry about it but, unless we know the people involved, it’s a necessarily detached emotion. By focusing upon the evil, and that’s not too strong a word for the world portrayed here, we are mired in the hell of the time and place. So the ending of the trilogy when, against all expectation, a girl is found alive the emotional release is immense: there can be good in the world too. This is heightened by quite brilliant direction (Anand Tucker), performances (Mark Addy, David Morrissey, Peter Mullan and Robert Sheehan and Peter Mullan) and the parallel editing that links two climactic scenes (Trevor Waite editor and Tony Grisoni script). As the camera rises with Addy’s character, clutching the girl, amongst a swirl of swan feathers… well, it was too much for me!

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3 Responses

  1. It is the most exciting and most inventive television I have seen in quite some time. Yes even the Wire, for which it has the same amount of complex characters and storyline, this can easily match . The uncomprimising bleak view is brilliantly portrayed in both the rounded characters of Grisoni’s script and the three director’s separate visions, and it is a credit to them all that they have managed to condense these three novels into workable and popular TV shows. My favourite part is definitely 1980, partially due to the interest in the subject matter, the fantastic performance by Paddy Considine and the very ambitious and effective opening sequence. But overall I found it well written, effectively directed and brilliantly acted, a complete triumph and almost perfect.

  2. I didn’t see the whole series but I was put off by the first one as I was a Yorkshire-based newspaper reporter at that time and knew the Ripper case well. It wasn’t corruption so much as incompetence that marred that investigation. I’m not a big fan of mixing fact and fiction in this way as it distorts real events for those watching who cannot sift the reality from the fiction.

  3. It’s certainly difficult to watch something when you have personal knowledge of the events when dramatic liberties are taken in the narrative. To what degree to audiences take the Red Riding Trilogy to be a realist representation of the time? Difficult to be definitive, however the Expressionist mise en scene does suggest subjectivity and, as I noted in the original post, the reality of the situation was unlikely to have been as bad the films present. It could be argued that fact and fiction can be interchangeable as people’s perspectives on controversial events are often at odds.

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