Tuesday, January 05, 2010

RED RIDING - 1974 - Less slippery and subversive than the novel but well put together nonetheless

1974 is the first of three films produced for television by Britain's Channel 4, based on the "Yorkshire noir" novels of David Peace. Each of his four books, 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983, is about the corruption of policeman, priests, politicians and businessmen who murder and extort for no reason other than that they can. There never seems to be much money or success to be had from it, other than protecting the status quo. These crimes are posited as endemic in a region crippled with obsolete heavy industry and chippy toward outsiders. The greatest tragedy is to think you can remain an outsider - a cool observer - and that you can affect change. West Yorkshire is a law unto itself, and that law is policed by West Yorkshire's Finest, and spun by the compliant journalists of the Yorkshire Post. David Peace's world is one of almost complete corruption and casual evil. There are no heroes, but there are characters through whom we investigate the world and with whom we come to empathise.

In 1974, that character is a cocky young journalist called Eddie Dunford, newly back from a failed stint as a journo in Fleet Street, and desperate to make a name for himself by proving that someone is serially killing little girls despite the obfuscation of the rozzers; competition from senior crime reporter Jack Whitehead; and the powerful forces protecting a successful local property developer, John Dawson.

The movie is directed by Julian Jarrold, whose previous directorial efforts included the painfully superficial and hi-gloss remake of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. 1974 is a far more successful film. Shot in sepia tones through the perpetual haze of cigarette smoke, the movie feels claustrophobic and sinister - just as it should. There's a superb scene where the camera looks over Dunford's shoulder through the patterned glass to a distorted image of Paula Garland - mother to a murdered girl - and soon to be Dunford's lover. That sums up Dunford: he sees through a glass darkly. And the tragedy of the film is that his eventual knowledge brings no relief. In a pivotal scene, he hands over a bag of documents - the research of his dead colleague Barry Gannon - to the one policeman he thinks is honest. Dunford is relieved - elated - as he drives toward his lover for an escape to the South. What a fool, the film-makers say, to think that he could actually escape the clutches of Yorkshire corruption. What a selfish, naive fool to think he could dump the files and fuck of to the South, where the sun shines.

Andrew Garfield is superb as Dunford - with his performance in THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS - he has become an actor I will go out of my way to watch. Rebecca Hall is moving as his lover, Paula Garland. In John Dawson, Sean Bean finds yet another role that capitalises on his slightly sleazy charisma. But the real strength is the depth and quality of British character actors filling the cast, from John Henshaw as the harsh-but-fair Editor, to Peter Mullan's Reverend Laws.

The resulting film is atmospheric, sometimes like a bad dream, hard to hold on to, unnverving, and very hard to let go of. Tony Grisoni has done a good job in adapting a ferociously complicated novel for a hundred minute runtime, and cleverly compresses characters. What the film looses, however, is the sheer force of its brutality. The novel is hard work, both in terms of language and descriptions of violence and sex. Every time Julian Jarrold cuts away from a blackmail photo or pans away from a scene of torture, David Peace takes you into the mind of the aggressor. And where the worst crime Grisoni's Dunford can be accused of is naivety, and a final loss of temper, Peace's Dunford is a far more ambivalent character. If policemen casually rape whores, then in the novel Dunford treats women as casually and cruelly, though playing, as it were, in the minor leagues.

And, without ruining either, I found the "solution" of 1974 and the closing scenes too neat and twee, where they should've been more slippery and open-ended. Presumably this was the result of the compression of a large conspiracy into a single culprit but the result was that the ending felt rushed and just plain bizarre - the logic behind the killing was almost given as a throw-away line, and significantly undermines the slow build-up.

RED RIDING was shown on UK TV in 2009 and is available on DVD and on the Channel 4 4oD video on demand service.

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