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Non-Review Review: Red Riding – The Year of Our Lord 1983

To the North, where we do what we want!

- Bill Molloy

It must be very tough to round off a trilogy of films, but Red Riding seems to possess more than its fair share of challenges. On top of the expansive cast and somewhat convoluted plot, this trilogy of adaptations for Channel 4 actually omits an entire story from the source material. David Peace wrote Red Riding as a four-book series, and yet there was only enough in the budget for a three-film adaptation. On top of that, the inevitable realities of pragmatic adaptation means that various characters have to be omitted and reworked and reconfigured so that the series of films makes sense on its own terms.

Red Riding: 1983 isn’t quite a flawless resolution to the trilogy, but it does enough things with enough skill that feels satisfying. A few contrivances feel a little awkward or cheesy, and some of the plot points feel a little too obvious and easy, but the cast and the characters are strong enough to carry this ambitious series past the finish line.

Good Jobson…

I am relatively sure that I know what happened over the course of the trilogy. I think. Red Riding: 1983 makes it clear who the bad guys are, and what they’re involved in, but I still have a few lingering questions about who did what when and why. I’ve been charting this thing on a piece of paper, and I’m still a little bit confused as to the particulars of various relationships or interactions. It’s not that Red Riding: 1983 is ambiguous or vague. It is merely that it feels a little compact in places.

The necessity of an ending presents several problems. The first concerns the characters in question. As you might imagine, the final film in the series pushes certain members of the ensemble to the fore in order to retroactively explain various plot points or murky motivations. This works verywell for characters like Maurice Jobson. Played by David Morrissey, Jobson has lingered around in the background for two films, so it’s interesting to get a bit of insight into how his mind works. However, it feels awkward when certain characters seem to emerge from next-to-nowhere.

Looking back…

The male prostitute BJ has been a recurring character throughout the previous two films. He was vital to Eddie Dunford’s inquiries, and also served to point Peter Hunter in the right direction about the faked Ripper murder. However, he spends most of Red Riding: 1983 separated from the ensemble. Released from prison, the character seems set to return home and to sort a few things out. The problem is that he doens’t have anybody to interact with, no springboard against which he can externalise his feelings or motivation.

As a result, somewhat awkwardly, the film gives us his internal narration. It’s something that typically works better in print and can be very tough to pull off in film and television. There’s something almost absurd about hearing BJ construct poems inside his own head, and it serves to make the character seem more like a convenient plot device to push the story towards a resolution, rather than a complex figure in his own right. BJ is the most obvious example, but there are other problems as well.

Smoke and mirrors…

There’s a major revelation about a character who has appeared in the last two instalments. I won’t spoil the reveal, but this character has been lurking around in the shadows for the previous two films. While he did seem quite sinister the last time around, several developments here hinge on the character in a way that doesn’t really work. Despite the actor’s best efforts, the character isn’t strong enough to quite sustain the climax of the trilogy. Astute viewers would have picked up hints about his true nature, but his importance seems to come out of nowhere.

There’s another rather convenient plot device in the form of Mandy Wymer, the psychic who comes forward with evidence about the latest disappearance. Perhaps it’s intentional though. After all, real life doesn’t have happy endings, and it’s telling that the most sensational element inserted into the narrative is the one the exists to force a happy ending. Perhaps it’s a sly dig at the audience, one requiring us to suspend our disbelief to assume that this cycle of death, violence and abuse could find something resembling a happy ending.

Word on a wing…

However, that’s not the real problem with Wymer. The problem is that her appearance invites director Anand Tucker to indulge in all manner of television movie clichés. The music swells, and there’s slow motion and all these lingering shots of the psychic “feeling” the pain that has been imprinted on the place. It is perhaps the most ham-fisted moment of the entire trilogy and it’s the only point at which these films (produced for Channel 4) feel like television movies rather than something a bit more cinematic.

It might sound like I’m being a bit harsh on Red Riding: 1983. I actually quite enjoyed it and – if you can look past these contrivances – it actually offers a pretty strong conclusion to the trilogy of films exploring endemic corruption in Yorkshire. This time around, the weight of the plot is carried by two characters rather than one. John Piggott is a solicitor returning home. While he is coming back after a long absence, he clearly feels like he belongs more than Peter Hunter ever did, and that he isn’t as much of a stranger as Eddie Dunford.

Filed away in a safe place…

The other protagonist is Maurice Jobson, David Morrissey’s moustached police detective who has been popping up time and again over the course of the trilogy. He’s generally faded into the background, and his most serious crime has been the suppression of evidence. The climax of Red Riding: 1974 saw him disposing of vital documents concerning the investigation into the murdered girls, and he found himself obstructing Peter Hunter’s inquiries in Red Riding: 1980. Here, however, Jobson is pushed to the front, and Morrissey is allowed a bit of room to breath.

Jobson’s ability to blend into the background is what makes him an ideal member of this sinister cabal, as shown at the start of the movie. He is “reliable”, that most cardinal of virtues. Sure, he has a moment or two of ethical hesitation. He flinches while watching the brutal interrogation of Leonard Cole, prompting his fellow officers to goad him, “Owl’s gone soft, has he?”The movie is quite clear that Jobson is extremely culpable in the festering corruption that has taken root in this community, but it also suggests that he wants out.

A Laws unto himself…

The head of this rather shady group, Harold Angus, cites this as a sign of weakness, and suggests that is what has kept him out of the inner circle of the men controlling Yorkshire, and at the periphery. “There’s a reason you never made it over Bill, Maurice. You ever wonder about that? Probably the same reason your wife up and left with kids. You’re a whiner.” Barry Gannon suggested in the first film in the series that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Jobson hasn’t just been doing nothing – he’s been actively complicit in the cover-up and the brutality. And yet, for all the bleakness of Red Riding as a trilogy, hope remains.

Portrayed by David Morrissey with oversized glasses and a dodgy moustache, Jobson can’t help but seem like a more beaten down version of Jim Gordon. Like the Gordon presented in Batman Begins, Jobson is complicit with the corruption because there’s no other option available to him. Gordon might have been content to make snide comments about his fellow officers, but there was nothing he could do but sit there and silently watch. Jobson does more than watch, but there’s a sense that he was watched his morality be eroded away over time.

Check out Maurice’s mo…

When Piggott visits Michael, convinced to hear the man’s case by his mother, Piggott explains just how clearly the system is weighted against him. Rather than serving to protect the innocent, the infrastructure seems to exist to make it difficult to escape the traps set by those in authority. “I’m a solicitor now and your mother asked me to come and talk to you about an appeal. Now, an appeal’s a very lengthy and costly procedure that involves a lot of time, a lot of… a lot of different people. So, before any firm embarks on such a course on behalf of a client, we have to ensure that there are sufficient grounds for such an appeal and that there’s a great likelihood of success. Now, even that costs a lot of money. Do you… Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Red Riding: 1983 pushes the trilogy’s themes of collective guilt to the fore. Interviewing Michael, the mentally handicapped man convicted of the murder of the little girl in Red Riding: 1974, John Piggott observes that the collective will of the community has determined Michael’s guilt and – through sheer force of will – seems to have made it so.

Tell me why you’re in here.

Because of Clare.

Clare who?

Clare Kemplay.

All right. What about her?

She did get killed and they said it were me.

Who said?

Everyone.

Did you kill Clare?

No.

Why did you say you did, then? Michael, why did you say you killed Clare?

They said I had to.

Who said?

Everyone.

The fact that “everyone” said that Michael killed Clare seemed to retroactively make it true. There are times when Red Riding seems to consciously evoke Orwell. Three digits in each of the three titles overlap with the title with 1984. (1974, 1980, 1983.) The comparisons become a bit more overt here, though. The brutal torture of Reverend Laws in order to force a confession from him recalls the torture in Room 101.

Shining some light on the matter…

There’s a sense that history and reality are malleable constructs in the hand of authority. Asked how she could lie about Michael, Tessa responds, “They made me! The police made me. They can do what they want!” Whenever Maurice Jobson seems to hesitate about Michael’s guilt, something he absolutely knows to be false, Harold Angus assures him that Michael did commit the murders. “You know that, in your heart.”

Even more than Red Riding: 1974, Red Riding: 1983 is about a society that has failed its most vulnerable. Rather than protecting Michael, it treats him as a scapegoat, and it’s something that John is disgusted about. Confronting the lawyer who represented Michael, he yells, “You were his solicitor, Clive! You were supposed to defend him, protect him.” The secrets revealed about Yorkshire reveal that the children of the region have been abused by those entrusted to protect them. It’s heavily implied that this has been happening for quite some time, but things only came to a head here because more “noticeable” children got taken.

Time to cop to it, I think…

While Anand Tucker’s direction here is probably the weakest of the trilogy, I have to give him credit for the way that he ties everything together. It can often seem like a bit of a cheat to go back and show us “between the scenes” of an earlier story, inserting new narrative threads into stories that have already been told. Here, however, Jobson’s memories of his earlier investigation add colour to the events of Red Riding: 1974, without ever seeming to diminish or intruded on Julian Jarrold’s trilogy opener. Instead, most the revelations make perfect sense, and don’t change the story too much, and resist the urge to undermine what we’ve already seen.

Perhaps due to the desire to fit everything in, Red Riding: 1983 seems curiously disconnected from the politics of the day. Red Riding: 1974 was set during a precarious time in the history of Great Britain, and Red Riding: 1980 was based around the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry. Both stories feature repeated background references to the politics of the day, while Red Riding: 1983seems curiously quiet on the matter.

(Side)burning for justice…

The closest we come seems to be in exploring Michael’s family history. His father was a miner, killed by substandard working conditions. Michael tells us that it was “because of the dust.” We also see the familiar nuclear power plant silos, looming large over a grey landscape. However, there’s relatively little that anchors Red Riding: 1983 to a particular time. Instead, it just seems like a bit of a decidedly fictional epilogue to a series that has balanced fact and fiction surprisingly well.

Still, these are minor problems. Red Riding: 1983 provides a fitting closing instalment in a superb crime trilogy. It might take a few contrivances to get it across the line, but it’s thematically strong enough to make it, and Mark Addy and David Morrissey provide two fantastic central performances. The whole trilogy is a remarkable accomplishment for British television, and it is highly recommended for anybody who likes their noir with a decidedly English accent.

Read our complete reviews of the Red Riding trilogy:

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