“Forget it, Jake, it’s Yorkshire.”
In a lot of ways this can sum up the feeling of Red Riding 1974, the first chapter in the ambitious, compelling and slightly flawed Red Riding trilogy. Coming back from London with his tail between his legs and his father in a crematorium, Eddie Dunford is a cub reporter looking to make a name for himself. Dressed in the latest Carnaby Street fashion and following his dick as often as he follows his leads, Dunford soon finds himself knee deep in a serious and deadly conspiracy and forced to choose between his life, his love and his ethics.
Based on a quartet (!) of novels by David Peace and originally run as a miniseries on British television, Red Riding is a sprawling tale that brings to mind the works of James Ellroy mixed with the social conscience of The Wire. The three films span a decade, weaving in their plots and picking up characters and stories while not quite telling a straight ahead story; instead the trilogy is like the ripples that come from the impact of the murder of a young girl in 1974, with the ripples spreading out for ten years.
Pre-teen Clare Kemplay is found raped and murdered, swan wings sewn into her back and a word carved into her chest. The murder comes on the heels of the disappearances of other young girls over the previous few years, but the local police seem unable to get a grasp on the situation. Eddie follows clues – some fed to him by an anonymous source – that slowly begin to implicate the massively corrupt police force. Along the way he falls in love with the mother of a girl who disappeared some years before, despite being warned off by two rough and cruel cops. As Eddie gets closer to the answers things get more violent and dangerous for all involved.
Unfortunately we’re about a mile ahead of Eddie at all times. Red Riding 1974 is very much a noir style film (each of the movies feels like they belong in their own crime genre), and the identity of the killer seems to be pretty obvious from the get-go (whether or not the identity of the killer is who we think it is has to wait until Red Riding 1983, but by then it’s really obvious). Also obvious: the beats of the story, which follows the familiar tropes of the genre. And except for a dragging patch in the middle of act two, that’s alright by me; while Red Riding 1974 may not be groundbreaking in the details of its plot and mystery it’s completely engrossing in the world it creates, a world of backroom deals between the police and the papers, a world where the old ways have turned into corrupt ways. It’s a world on the brink of change, where the police act with decisive brutality and don’t so much solve crimes as rewrite the narrative of crimes, and it’s a world that is resisting the social change that’s coming to the rest of England.
Director Julian Jarrold creates this world painstakingly, and you can smell the stale cigarette smoke in every room and the cheap cologne and hair tonic on every man. It’s a complete universe and you fall right into it, swept away in the crushing poverty and hopelessness that nailed England in the 70s. And just like every good sweeping noir, there’s a bigger world that just gets touched upon; Eddie skims off the surface of another reality of cops and businessmen crooks that feels tantalizing and complete, and which is explored further in the next two chapters. Screenwriter Tony Grisoni sketches characters who become whole in just a few scenes, an important task as seemingly minor characters in 1974 become utterly central by the time 1983 rolls around.
Andrew Garfield, next seen in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is wonderful as Eddie, who traces an arc from full of himself hot shot to naive schmuck to driven man on the edge. Garfield makes Eddie feel real; all too often the noir hero just comes along for the ride in these stories, and while Eddie isn’t really the master of his own destiny in any meaningful way (again, these heroes never are), Garfield creates a character who grows and changes in real, compelling ways. Against him is Sean Bean, popping up in the third act as the evil land developer, playing his role with complete gusto and flair.
The rest of the supporting cast shines as well, but often in ways that make you forget they’re even there. Again, it’s like The Wire – the actors are simply their characters. Rebecca Hall is luminous and tragic as the mother of a disappeared girl who falls in with Eddie. Eddie Marsan is unbelievably good as the burnt out crime reporter Jack Whitehead, and Anthony Flanagan is strong as the reporter who may know much more than is good for his health.
While the second act hangs in an unconscionable way – Eddie seems to just futz around for about twenty irritating minutes – Red Riding 1974 winds up to a great, cathartic ending, but the violence at the finale is only the beginning of the next story. While the meta story continues on, the story of 1974 feels complete in and of itself, although all the answers you get might not be as correct as you are led to believe in just this first chapter.
8 out of 10