Red Riding

Every year, I go to the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, and wallow in the excitement of having literally hundreds of movies available to watch that I might never have seen otherwise. This was the twelfth year, and it's huge now compared to what it was like the first time I went, way back in the third year, I think it was. Then, it was actually humanly possible to watch all the films over the two and half days of the festival. Most of them were shown at least two or three times. These days, the festival runs from Wednesday through Sunday, and even if you didn't sleep a wink in all that time, you still couldn't watch everything.

I feel like I gave it a good try, though. Starting at 1:15 on Saturday, and ending six and a half hours later, I watched all three Red Riding movies: 1974, 1980, and 1983. They're based on three novels of those names, by David Peace, though they skipped the novel for 1977. It's just as well; we were already losing some of the ticket holders by the time 1983 rolled around as it was. And some poor volunteer, who hadn't been around for the first two, sat down and watched the last one, after which he asked me rather helplessly for some of the background he'd missed. Not that he knew I was a critic taking notes, of course, since no one knows who I am; but I was staying for the credits and I was close by.

Anyway. In spite of the titles, all three movies were filmed in 2009, and you'd never know it to look at them. 1974 was filmed in 16mm for that classic grainy look; 1980 was filmed in regular 35mm; and 1983 was filmed in HD, to give you the sense that these movies really were made over the course of nine years. No one really looks much older at the end, but then, a good portion of the characters don't survive until the end.

The cast is huge. Several people are in at least two of the three movies, even if only in flashback, which gives those who were killed off in the first movie a chance to pop up in the later ones; but you need to learn a lot of new faces for each one, too, and in spite of how exhausting it was, I feel sorry for anyone who tries to watch these too far apart. I'm usually pretty good at keeping track of what's going on, but here I really had to work to catch it all.

The characters all have two things in common: they live in Yorkshire, and they end up (voluntarily or not) involved with the corrupt Yorkshire police force and the various scandals they're trying to keep hushed up. "To the north," one character says, making a toast. "Where we do what we want!" Still, between their sneaky takeover of the local porn industry (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em?); their scheme with local wealthy builder John Dawson (Sean Bean, aka Boromir); and all the threatening, beating up and killing of those who find out about the first two things, I'm not sure they really have any time to do what they want. This stuff is more what they have to do to keep from getting caught.

In 1974, trouble starts with a young reporter, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), who just wants to get a good story after washing out at a big London paper. Now he's back in his native Yorkshire, trying to prove he can still do his job. He spots a connection among three schoolgirls who've gone missing over the course of the last few years, and starts digging.

In 1980, things get worse as the Yorkshire Ripper (a real life murderer, who copied something of Jack the Ripper's signature style in his attacks on prostitutes) murders heat up, and the citizens want to know why, after no less than 13 women have been hit with a hammer and slashed to death, the police haven't caught this guy already. You and I know it's because the police are too busy counting their ill-gotten gains, but of course they can't admit that to the public. The higher-ups finally call in someone new to head the case and offer a fresh perspective; namely obsessive detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine, the hapless reporter from The Bourne Ultimatum). He has some excellent ideas about who the Ripper is, but unfortunately, he also ends up with a couple of excellent ideas about what's really going on with the Yorkshire police, and you and I also know that that's not good for anyone's health.

And in 1983, things aren't any better. Young girls are disappearing again, and there's no shortage of suspects, from the local gypsies to local priest Martin Laws (Peter Mullan). They have someone in jail for the 1974 disappearances (Michael Myshkin, played by Daniel Mays of The Bank Job), but it's tough for even these cops to find a way to blame the same man for the current problems, though they seem to really want to do just that. Michael's aged mother asks her old friend's lawyer son John Piggott (Mark Addy, who was in The Full Monty and will be Friar Tuck in the upcoming Robin Hood flick) to file an appeal, even though it's kinda hard to appeal nine years after the fact, against a confession and a guilty plea; and this isn't even his kind of law anyway. But like others before him, he senses something deeply wrong and dives in head first to try to fix things -- with an unknown and highly unlikely ally helping behind the scenes.

It was the most depressing trilogy ever, I think, but it was great. You felt absolutely immersed in the time periods, and the acting was stellar all across the board, so it gets four and a half idols out of five. There was one subplot that sort of bothered me -- it seemed so much less developed than the rest (a side effect of adapting four novels into three movies, I'm sure), so it was kind of a shock to discover it really was important at the end, and it didn't quite fit in overall -- but that's a minor thing compared to how wonderfully dark and grimy all the rest of it was, and the way even the smallest detail seemed to fit in to the whole big, scary picture. It's available on Netflix, so check it out if you have six hours to spare and don't mind a little grime and corruption in your movies. Okay, a lot of grime and corruption.

1974's reporter, Eddie; 1980's detective, Peter; and 1983's lawyer, John


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