Entertainment :: Movies

The Red Riding Trilogy

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 31, 2010
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Three magnificent, moody movies convey the dread of a community living under the shadow of a killer, even as they etch a portrait of how the ruthless ambitions of a powerful few erode the ties that would otherwise help that same community weather the killer’s predations.

The Red Riding Trilogy comprises three distinct films from three directors, each working with their own visual style. But the films are united in having the same producers and the same screenwriter, Tony Grisoni, and they are all drawn from the quartet of novels by David Peace. The films also share a core cast of characters that sometimes retreat into the background, and sometimes loom, larger than life, over the proceedings.

The films, like the books, takes a germ of true events--the killings perpetrated by the Yorkshire Ripper over five years, from 1975 until the arrest, in the first days of 1981, of Peter Sutcliffe--and spin a tale of police corruption and big business around it. (As one person notes in an interview included with the extras, this is not a docudrama so much as a warning of the consequences of allowing power too much privilege, and vice versa.)

In the first of the three chapters, 1974, a cub reporter (Andre Garfield) inherits a trove of damning information on a local land developer (Sean Bean) who is financially cozy with the local police. But the web of corruption that the journalist uncovers is merely the background for a series of shocking crimes that come to light: children have been disappearing for years, and when they are found--if they are found--they are dead... or worse. The latest missing child is a case in "worse," when she’s found with swan wings stitched to her shoulders and the words "4 LUV" carved into her flesh. The coroner determines that she was "tortured, raped, and strangled." When the cub journalist links the murder to earlier child killings and disappearances, he becomes romantically involved with the mother of an earlier victim, and finds himself on the express route to the thick of the the secrets and lies that have Yorkshire in their grip.

The skein of personal entanglements explored in 1974 includes love, grief, and seduction of various sorts--a formula that is repeated for the second movie, 1980, in which the ongoing Yorkshire Ripper mess (with prostitutes now the killer’s targets) draws the attention of the government, which dispatches a police inspector (Paddy Considine) and his hand-picked team to sort things out. It’s six years later, but the Yorkshire police are still deeply mired in deception and vice. They react as any brotherhood of conspirators are bound to: with the arrival of investigators from the outside world, a wave of resentment--and a fresh assortment of outrages--are triggered: blackmail, arson, and murder ensue; the innocent are tortured by police as well as by the killer, and the blood runs red. Personal lives are torched (so are homes); careers and reputations are tarnished; lives are ruined; lives are lost.

The weary, the discarded, and the second-rate survive, along with the top tier of those in power, for the third film, 1983. It’s through the recollections of a reluctant player on both sides of the law (David Morrissey), as well as the perambulations of a male prostitute (Robert Sheehan) who also threads in and out of the three films, that the events of the first two films are tied together and the mystery of the child killer is solved--along with some footwork by a down-in-the-mouth lawyer (Mark Addy), who just might succeed where brighter lights before him have stumbled and guttered out.

Though the story is brought to a conclusion, and nagging questions answered, other aspects of the mystery are left to linger. In such a cauldron of killing, betrayal, and psychopathy, it would probably be counterproductive to try to answer every single question raised along the way; the result is an epic film that bristles with unease, and continues to scratch away at one. The trilogy totals five hours; be prepared to spend some time on it, because it’s going to warrant a second and even third viewing.

But also be prepared for a certain level of obviousness, from the tone-setting opening moments of the first film (the mood and themes are set out ham-handedly, with stormy skies, thunder, and a passing reference to the murderous Kray twins; oh, and the latest missing girl was wearing a red anorak). Also, you might notice that the cops all have animal-based nicknames for each other: the Owl, the Badger. Do these pet names apply only to cops, or could other pillars of the community also belong to the bestiary?

This is no fairy tale, but you can be sure all the same that the missing little girls, and the murdered prostitutes, crossed paths with a Wolf. But how much do the police know? How deeply involved are they? Indeed, are they deliberately slowing their investigations, perhaps even killing a few of the victims themselves to muddy the waters? Or are they simply doing their best to deflect attention from their community and themselves, wary of anyone shining a light in the dark corners where their own dealings take place? The atmosphere is choked with paranoia.

There are a few missteps, such as a diversion into the supernatural when the police, growing desperate, turn to a psychic. (Another odd, quick-blossoming romance also takes root here.) Then there are the trilogy-pervading character names, which are, if you’re paying attention, almost hilarious in the way they peg the various players. (The male prostitute’s name? You got it: BJ! The fat, trudging lawyer who lives in a sty? Piggott! Oh, please stop!)

On a large scale, the metaphor here is about how the mechanisms of society--meant to protect--can easily go awry and afflict us instead, when the individuals charged with the public good lose sight of that sacred trust. The smaller scale on which the trilogy operates addresses the question of personal culpability. If evil men flourish, isn’t it because good people don’t know how to stop them? But the portraits painted here are more nuanced than that, by far. The good guys are flawed; the bad guys are given to stress and psychological fracture; the folks on the margins are damaged, sometimes by the so-called good guys and sometimes simply by the business of life in a place where everything is simply breaking down. We’re each as desolate as the Yorkshire landscape, the films seem to say by way of their chilly cinematography, and that landscape is barren and dotted with grimy nuclear plant chimneys. There’s a sense of scorched earth here: trust comes hard, and often it’s misplaced.

Critics have called this trilogy "better than the Godfather." Trilogy versus trilogy, maybe so; these films are all made with comparable verve, drive, and skill, whereas The Godfather trilogy fell apart in the third installment. But not one of these three films is a patch on the first Godfather. For complexity and violence, it might be fair to rank all three Red Riding films against one single Godfather movie, Godfather II. That’s not a dismissal of the Red Riding Trilogy’s powerful filmmaking: watching these movies is like a punch to the gut, and they leave you gasping and a little light-headed.

The Red Riding DVD release offers a few unexciting extras: each chapter has its own "Making of," complete with footage of people walking and driving in the rain (or rather, a glimpse of how filmmakers create the illusions of such things), along with interviews with the films’ cast and crew.

There are also deleted scenes, TV spots, and theatrical trailers.

Special Features include:

- "Making of" featurettes
- Deleted scenes
- TV spots and theatrical trailers

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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