Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Scene on Screen: Red Riding 1974, 1980

It's a bit of a non-technical reviewer's cliche to describe movies and music with terms like atmospheric, bleak and gritty, but if the shoe fits... How else to describe the first two episodes of this made-for-British-TV trilogy based on a series of novels by David Pease, themselves a fictionalized account of the Yorkshire Ripper murders and other events. Each episode features a different director, focuses on different characters and events, and sets itself far apart from the kinds of spoon-fed crime scene investigation procedural fantasy dramas that are such a popular staple of American television. These features are a product of Britain's Channel 4, which I suppose makes them a miniseries, but that doesn't sound very sexy, and here in the USA we're receiving them as indie cinema. They definitely have the quality to justify theatrical viewing (quick - go see them at Real Art Ways or catch them on IFC on demand).

As usual, pre-screening I avoided reading too much information about this series, or the events upon which it is ostensibly based to keep my preconceived notions at a minimum. And since the events depicted on screen are highly fictionalized and at times extremely ambiguous, this turned out to be a fine approach. Rather than taking a lurid focus on a killer or obsessing over graphic crime scene details, the series positions the murdered and disappeared women and girls as a backdrop to an ongoing investigation by both police and journalists, loosely connected by geography, a horrifically corrupt West Yorkshire police department, and other acts of shocking, cold-blooded violence.

1974 stands very well on it's own as a work of fiction. In this story, a semi-idealistic young journalist (Andrew Garfield, another former Dr. Who player) attempts to mount his own investigation into a series of disappearances of young girls, in which he fails miserably at maintaining objective distance from the victims and their survivors and gets in far too deep when he uncovers the scope of corruption at play in the local police department and community. The film's look and "atmosphere" are convincingly 1970s (I guess... wasn't born yet, actually), thoroughly bleak and gritty, and extremely disorienting, saddling the viewer with the same horror, confusion, and revelations that come a bit too late for the film's protagonist. This is highly effective approach, and sure to disappoint anyone expecting a neat conclusion. Was anybody expecting one?

1980 is another era, with a different style, and different tone (still bleak and all, just differently so). We have a new director (James Marsh, recently known for Man on Wire), and a new would-be hero, Detective Peter Hunter, portrayed with such sad-eyed sincerity by Paddy Considine. Hunter is an outsider tasked with reviewing West Yorkshire's investigation into another set of serial killings - this time the victims are adult women, including prostitutes. He's looking for an overlooked murderer in the department's extensive files, but like the journalist Dunford in the previous installment, he also finds himself up against cops who will go to any lengths to protect their own and cover for their past incompetence and complicity with the violent, climactic fallout from the previous film. This installment directly concerns the crimes and apprehension of the Yorkshire Ripper, but while this story provided the general history that inspired the novels, just like in 1974 these crimes and criminal that ought to be everybody's focus end up taking a back seat to the tense conflict that builds between Hunter, the police force and local baddies, which are also the elements that tie the two films together.

Again without being too spoilery, let it suffice to say that while a killer has been caught, no kind of resolution has been reached regarding the events that are the real action of both films by this point. I am sufficiently immersed in the story and frustrated by the injustices portrayed thus far that I am on the edge of my seat to see get to the final chapter, 1983. Themes for the series seem to be man's infinite capacity for corruption and violence and impunity for evil deeds, so I'm not expecting any kind of happy ending.

1974 finishes its RAW run tomorrow - so run out and see it. 1980 and 1983 will play for the next week or so - check the schedule. And check the trailer.

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