The Red Riding trilogy is a triumph of British television drama, and proof that the British channels are capable of producing home-grown drama that is of the highest possible quality. Demonstrating that HBO doesn’t hold complete dominion over quality drama, the Red Riding films were of enough quality to earn a limited theatrical release in the United States. I know that a high profile and commercial success isn’t a universal guarantee of quality, but it is certainly worth noting when discussing these three films exploring crime and corruption in the three “Riding” administrative zones. (For the record, the three zones are “North”, “East” and “West.” There is no “South”, which feels appropriate given the themes of the trilogy.)
Mingling fact and fiction into a head noir-ish cocktail, Red Riding is highly recommended for those who like bleak and sophisticated drama.
The three films are based on four books by David Peace. The second book in the series did not receive an adaptation. This leads to a strange disconnect with the second film, Red Riding: 1980, which feels orphaned. Red Riding: 1974 and Red Riding: 1983 bookend neatly, while Red Riding: 1980 feels like a slightly different animal – despite the overlapping cast and themes. There’s a sense throughout that there is something missing. Characters disappear from Red Riding: 1977 to Red Riding: 1980, Red Riding: 1980 dwells on how important the Silver Jubilee was.
Even Red Riding: 1983 contains a none-too-subtle reference to the missing piece of the puzzle. “It’s happened before,” Mandy Wymer tells us. “Three times. It’s happening again now.” She is, of course, referring to the murders in question, but she could also be referring to the previous three books. There is a sense of missing pieces as one watches the series, with characters from the source material amalgamated and combined in order to create a manageable ensemble for a trilogy of feature films.
Sometimes this is a little clumsy. Some characters get the short end of the stick. Reverend Laws in particular feels like he should be far more developed than he ultimately is. The importance of BJ to the climax of the trilogy seems to come a bit from left-field, given that he hasn’t really been developed as a character in his own right. Then again, life doesn’t necessarily work like that – and you could argue that the missing pieces from Red Riding are merely an attempt at naturalism – to suggest that the real world doesn’t wrap thing up in neat little bows.
Aside from that minor complaint, the trilogy is a stunning accomplishment. There are three films here with three very different looks from three very different directors. The first two use different types of film, while the last was shot on digital. From that hands of three very different (and very talented) directors, there’s a sense that this is one world as seen through three very different prisms. I think that James Marsh and Julian Jarrold handle their instalments fantastically, while Anand Tucker seems to struggle a bit on translating the final film to the screen.
There’s something remarkably about capturing nine years of fictionalised history in three films. The casts, obviously, overlap, and there’s something fascinating about catching up with these characters at three-year intervals. To be fair to writer Tony Grisoni, it’s a credit that the world is so well drawn that we know how most people fit into it, even if the number of faces and names might overwhelm us. In Red Riding: 1980, Reverend Laws tells Peter Hunter, “I’ve a young man outside. He’s an unsettled lad, but he’s desperate to speak to you.” We know immediately who the Reverend is talking about.
It’s also fascinating to watch the characters gradually evolve and shift over the course of the three films – at least those characters who make it all the way through. David Morrissey’s Maurice Jobson is perhaps the most obvious example. He spends most of Red Riding: 1974 in the background, until a final act twist reveals his somewhat passive complicity in the corruption. His old friend Peter Hunter calls him on it in Red Riding: 1980, and Jobson is finally driven to make amends in Red Riding: 1983. That sort of character arc is impressive, and very well managed across three films with three different directors.
Similarly, it’s interesting to watch the character of Bob Craven evolve over the three films – or at least our perception of Bob Craven. In Red Riding: 1974, Craven is the face of the goose-stepping police goons, the man doing the dirty work for people in high places. In Red Riding: 1980, he’s the direct foil for investigator Peter Hunter. However, Red Riding: 1983 asks us to reappraise his role once again. It seems that Craven is nothing more than a low-level grunt.
His most important philosophical statement from Red Riding: 1974 is revealed to have been paraphrased from Bill Molloy. His technique of interrogation is suggested to have come from Maurice Jobson. It’s a fascinating little reveal, buried in the details. Craven stops being important to the story at the climax of the second film, but the final movie still manages to cast a little light on the character by suggesting that none of his attitudes or even his brutality were really his own. They were merely inherited or borrowed as part of a perpetual cycle of abuse and violence.
It’s great the way that each film builds on the previous entity, to the point where the small details carry over from film to film. Hunter suggests that Craven never fully recovered from the massacre at the Karachi Club. “I think they left some bits out when they rebuilt him.” However, thanks to the earlier film, we know better. We know he was always a malicious thug. Similarly, having seen the torture that the police inflict on suspects, it’s quite harrowing to hear the wrongfully convicted Michael repeat a familiar phrase. “Hands flat on the table.” One simple line in Red Riding: 1983 carries extra weight because we’ve seen it used in Red Riding: 1974.
People will argue about the best way to watch the Red Riding trilogy. It was originally syndicated over three nights on Channel 4, but the whole presentation toured the United States as single five-hour production. Purists would suggest that watching all three films back to back is the only way to truly immerse yourself in the trilogy, and to drink in all the details seeded throughout. I can respect that view, and I would certainly recommend viewing the films close together.
However, I’m not entirely sure that watching five hours of Red Riding in one sitting is the best way to do it. I compromised, I split my viewing over two nights. Even at that, I will confess that I found the bleakness and cynicisms of the films almost overwhelming. By the end of the second film, I almost felt as if I were drowning in metaphorical darkness, wallowing in all this angst and nihilism. Then again, I’m very easily overloaded with that sort of darkness – I can often find myself pushed past the point where the story is so dark I have difficulty convincing myself to invest in the characters or the world.
I never quite reached that point with Red Riding, but I was definitely getting there. I think a five-hour sitting might just be too much for me, but I would recommend trying to see the films in a relatively short length of time and close together. The films are populated with lots of characters, names and faces. While each instalment does a decent job introducing us to each of them, it’s easy to loose track if you don’t watch the films in relative succession. (Indeed, it can be difficult watching the films one-after-the-other.)
Ultimately, though, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. Some people will crave the opportunity to plunge head-first into a five-hour tour of a murky and cynical world filled with decay and corruption. Others would rather space their trips to that realm apart so that they can come up for air before diving back in. I’d recommend trying Red Riding: 1974 (at a reasonable hour) and then taking it from there.
Red Riding is a fantastic accomplishment, and proof that any inherent difference in quality between film and television has all but disappeared. These films are clever, thoughtful, bold and eerily beautiful, and a demonstration of the talent and skill working in modern British television. A triumph.
Read our complete reviews of the Red Riding trilogy:
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Anand Tucker, arts, Arts and Entertainment, Big Bad Wolf, David Peace, hbo, Julian Jarrold, Little Red Riding Hood, Peter Hunter, Recreation, Red Riding, Television, Tony Grisoni, United States