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Non-Review Review: Red Riding – The Year of Our Lord 1974

This is the North. We do what we want.

– Craven explains how things work to Eddie

Red Riding is certainly an ambitious effort. David Peace wrote four books exploring violence and corruption in Yorkshire, centring around the morbid history of brutality in the North. Occupying a strange ethereal realm between fact and fiction, sometimes those crimes are fictionalised, but sometimes real murders and murderers intersect. The child murders of this first instalment, Red Riding: 1974, evoke the infamous Moors murders in Manchester during the sixties, while the arrest of an innocent party calls to mind the case of Stefan Kiszko. Adapting the series of four books into a trilogy of films, Red Ridingmakes for a fascinating – if gloomy – exploration of the darker pages in the region’s cultural history.

He’s gone far (Gar)field…

It has been argued that it’s unfair to treat the world depicted here as an accurate reflection of British society at the time. Certainly, author David Peace wrote his four books in Japan – well removed geographically from their setting. However, one senses that Red Riding isn’t meant to be read as a literal social history. After all, fiction blends too readily with fact, the direction gives everything a slightly skewed and uncertain appearance. The audience isn’t necessarily sure that they can trust what they see on-screen, so it’s unlikely that any will treat it as a pseudo-documentary about seventies Britain.

However, despite the fact that Red Riding: 1974 is not necessarily a literal social history, there are elements that strike pretty close to home. Some of them are pointed commentaries on a culture of greed and corruption that took root during the decade in question. Still, those aren’t the most disturbing aspects of Red Riding: 1974. The more disturbing imagery is the imagery that feels as if it might have been lifted from a modern newspaper. The seventies trappings and Andrew Garfield’s impressive sideburns are always on display to remind us when the story is set, but like any truly unnerving drama, it serves to needle its audience about more current concerns.

A Hall(mark) of quality…

There is a sequence towards the end of the film where a character is abducted by men in uniform. He is dragged under ground and thrown in a dark pit. He is stripped naked. He is sprayed with the hose while he pleads for mercy. He is brutally beaten. His head is covered in a black cloth bag that is, sadly, an instantly recognisable component of one of the most infamous abuses of authority in recent memory.

Our character is tortured, brutally and thoroughly. He is disorientated, kept in conditions like that for days, barely able to stand by the time that his captors have finished with him. Then he is asked to confess to a crime that he didn’t commit. And all of this is done by men in uniform. Sure, they roll up their sleeves and remove their jackets, and any official response might deny this is taking place… but the orders are coming from somewhere. If it isn’t the official channels, it involves many of the same people.

Oop North…

Just in case we aren’t sure how to read the scene, our protagonist makes a joke about a “special relationship” in the sequence directly prior – a relationship between the media and the authorities that has turned poisonous and festering, only encouraging the rot that has taken root at the heart of the Yorkshire establishment. Truth be told, I don’t know how much historical truth there is to the damning allegations of collusion and corruption suggested by Red Riding: 1974. It has been argued that the inept handling of the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry was down to “incompetence, shot through with misogyny” more than corruption.

I know a bit about the grim history that inspired the various murder cases that form the backbone of the series, but I’ll confess that I’m not too sure about the Yorkshire police force. Of course, Red Riding: 1974is somewhat broader in scope than its immediate setting. After all, giving countless revelations about institutionalised corruption in the later decades of the twentieth century, nothing suggested here seems too ridiculous or outlandish. The police, the media, the church, the rich – it’s suggested that all of those forces colluded to cover up murders and conceal child abuse. It doesn’t seem like a stretch given some of the stories that have come to light since then.

My big fat gypsy pogrom…

However, if the underground beatings seem to evoke a more modern evil, the sinister goings-on in Yorkshire also call to mind older historical injustices. The superb Sean Harris skirts around the edges of Red Riding: 1974, but he does so wearing his police uniform in its finest. He moves with a mechanic precision, as if this brutality is simply a routine part of his job. His goose-stepping, his fine uniform, his casual brutality and even his black gloves all call to mind the way that fascist organisations sought to legitimise their violence.

Early in the film, our intrepid young reporter, Eddie Dunbar, arrives at a local traveller encampment, to find it burnt down. Ash floats in the air. As shot by Julian Jarrold, it looks almost eerily beautiful, ethereal and creepy. As the episode reminds us repeatedly, these travellers are “gypos” or gypsies, and the people of Yorkshire don’t seem to like having them around. In particular, they are getting in the way of Jack Dawson’s real estate development, so they need to be removed.

All Jacked up…

“It was like Vietnam or something,” Eddie comments. While it’s a contemporaneous reference, the notion of a persecuted ethnic group being burnt alive by the instruments of state law enforcement calls an entirely different image to mind. Throughout the trilogy, and most obviously in Red Riding: 1983, there’s a sense that the trilogy owes a considerable debt to George Orwell and his exploration of a fascist Britain in 1984. Not only do each of the filmed instalments share three digits with the title of 1984, but the later film includes a rat and the ability to retroactively re-write local memory is a recurring theme. “You know it, in your heart,” as Maurice Jobson is told.

And yet the events of Red Riding: 1974 are also anchored in the Britain of the time, with the numerous pressures exerting themselves on British society adding to a sense of pervading doom and gloom. More than the following two instalments, Red Riding: 1974seems positively apocalyptic. The other two entries in the series suggest that the tragedy is that the system will survive – that corruption will endure. Here, it seems like the country is willing to more aggressively cannibalise itself from the inside out.

Smoking out a conspiracy…

“Everything’s linked, Eddie,” his conspiracy theorist colleague advises him at one point. He suggests that Britain is on the verge of collapsing into some sort of fascist state with martial law. “Eddie, it’s a conspiracy. We’ve got MI5 keeping an eye on our Harold, Mountbatten waiting in the wings with a military junta.” There’s a sense of a society tittering on the edge of the abyss, ready to fall in. “There are death squads out there. They give them a taste in Northern Ireland,  bring them back home hungry.”  While Eddie mocks him, the bitter old crank assures him, “And every city has its death squads. Sentence first, evidence after.”

Of course, such statements are expected from the local paper’s crackpot journalist. However, it is more concerning when it comes from the local property tycoon, Jack Dawson. Taking Eddie for a ride, he shares his own concerns, and his own threatened old-fashioned world view.

This nation’s in %$#!ing chaos with its hung parliaments. A year ago, they were to bring back rationing. Now we’ve got inflation at %$#!ing 25%. The country’s at war, Mr. Dunford. The governments and the unions, the left and the right, the rich and the poor. Then you’ve got your enemies within: your paddies, your w*gs, your n*ggers, your %$#!ing gypos, the poofs, the perverts, even the bloody women. They’re all out for what they can get. I tell you, soon, there’ll be naught left for us lot. Time to turn the tide.

So you’re not a Labour man, then?

Of course I bloody am. The Tory cunts have out priced themselves. Your Labour man will always do a deal.

– Jack Dawson and Eddie Dunford

This is the rather brilliant sick twist of Red Riding: 1974, and it’s something missing from the next two films. One gets the sense, as we explore the institutions of this fictionalised Yorkshire, that the world falling apart might not be a bad thing.

It’s all gone bloody wrong, hasn’t it?

Eddie mocks Jack and his “filthy little world”, and his racist classist ramblings make it clear that Jack Dawson’s establishment is a very bad thing. We’re hardly going to root for the death squads, but it is just as evil to allow Jack Dawson’s bigoted and self-serving plutocracy to endure. We don’t quite know how firmly the rot has entrenched itself at this point in the story, so the threat of apocalyptic anarchy seem disturbing until we catch a glimpse of the establishment that it rails against. Neither is an appetising choice, and that gives Red Riding: 1974 a superb sense of power. It throws the viewer for a loop, and keeps us off balance.

The institutions presented here are all fundamentally rotten. The police are portrayed as corrupt throughout the trilogy, but here the media gets a bit of a lashing. There’s a sense that they aren’t taking their obligations nearly seriously enough. Meeting the mother of one of the victims, Eddie pointedly remarks that the press has lost interest in her daughter’s disappearance. “I’m doing this article, and it’s about the about parents of children who have gone missing. It’s about how people like yourself, like your husband, have coped after all the fuss has died down.”

I wish it would rain down…

Of course, Eddie himself is just as cynical. Brought to life rather brilliantly by Andrew Garfield, he’s certainly the most compelling protagonist of the trilogy. He is – like any decent noir protagonist – deeply flawed. He is very clearly driven, at least early on, by a chance to make a name for himself. He’s an outsider, returning home from the South only to discover that the landscape has changed. He returns home for his father’s funeral, and it’s repeatedly implied that he’s only back home because he couldn’t find his footing anywhere else.

“Didn’t cut it down south?” one girl taunts. He’s such a stranger that even the corrupt cop Bob Craven feels he has to reintroduce Eddie to the rules of this part of the world, confirming that he’s now in “the North.” Jack Whitehead taunts him as a washed-up failure, implying his return home is an admission of defeat. “Whatever happened to all those novels you were going to write, but you were too scared sh!tless to even try?” When he is caught off guard by the fact that one of the victims’ fathers committed suicide, Eddie observes, “It didn’t exactly make the front page down South.” His colleague counters, “Well, you should have %$#!in’ known.”

Steady Eddie…

Eddie’s father is brought up a couple of times during the film, and it’s always in the same context. He is described as “reliable”, as if that is the most virtuous quality to be found in a resident of this part of the world. If you can be counted upon to do your share and to keep your head down, then the community will accept and embrace you. Eddie is repeatedly handled – threatened, bribed, cajoled – in such a manner that it’s clear everybody wishes he were as “reliable” as his father. “Top man, your dad,” Jack Dawson explains. “Knew how to cut his cloth. Solid, dependable.”

Eddie himself refuses to play along, and that inevitably brings him into conflict with a local community that very clearly doesn’t want any questions asked. After all, an inquisitive reporter is the last person you want running around a part of the country with its share of shady secrets. Garfield does an excellent job with the character, and I am glad to see the actor finding success on the big screen. His performance here is superb, in a film packed with great work by fantastic actors.

Drinking it in…

Eddie is a massive contrast to the rest of the reporters working in the area because of his persistent nature. The newspaper he works with is far too concerned about maintaining its reputation than pursuing the truth with any vigour. Investigating a series of swan mutilations, Eddie is advised by his editor, “And try and pull back on the more visceral details. You don’t want that with your cornflakes, do you?” Of course, they aren’t solely concerned about a few upset stomachs.

The newspaper seems most concerned about its long-term relationship with law enforcement. “Now don’t push him, lad,” Eddie is advised on meeting a local officer. “This paper enjoys a good relationship with our newly-amalgamated police force, and I – for one – would like to keep it that way!” Of course, Eddies soon sees the picture. “You’re in their pockets,” Eddie protests. “Police going about their business, supported by the good old Yorkshire Post.”

To dine for…

“The devil triumphs when good men do naught,” Eddie’s paranoid colleague advises him, encapsulating a major theme in the trilogy. Everybody is far too concerned about getting along with everybody else, and ensuring that everything is mutually beneficial. “I always got on well with Jack Whitehead,” Jobson comments on meeting Eddie, and the film suggests that “getting on well” with your local authority is more important to this community than solving the murder of countless little girls.

(Of course, for his part, Eddie is portrayed as exploitative and predatory in his pursuit of evidence. His inquiries are motivated by self-interest at first, and there’s all manner of ethical breaches as he continues his investigation. “If it bleeds it leads,” he cynically boasts at one point. It’s suggested that the most enthusiastic press act like rabid dogs, baying for blood and gore. Ending a press conference, Jobson advises the assembled reporters, “All right, that’s your lot.” It seems like feeding time is almost over.)

From the ashes…

The visuals of Red Riding: 1974 are stunning, and Julian Jarrold realises them remarkably well. The dead bodies of children are all found in the foundations of various Yorkshire developments – “beneath the beautiful carpets”, to quote Dawson’s wife – and it’s a beautiful metaphor. Even the aforementioned torture sequence unfolds deep within the ground, in the foundations of what would be modern Yorkshire.

Indeed, played by Sean Bean, Jack Dawson is a surreal character. With his gaudy cream suits and his flashy wealth (“come for a spin in the Jensen, Mr. Dunford?” he asks, before perhaps the most stylish element of the entire production), he seems ridiculous juxtaposed against the sombre greys of the rest of the film. Indeed, one of the movie’s best images – and most absurd – features a goon holding an umbrella to stop the typical Yorkshire weather from ruining Dawson’s nice suit.

Google’s Beta phase was a long and painful process…

However, his lack of taste and his affluence suggest the future of the region – Jack Dawson isn’t too far removed from any of the morally suspect Irish or English land developers who came to prominence during the seventies, eighties and nineties. There’s a sense that Dawson has lost touch with the region as he describes his master plan to the young reporter. Admiring the scale model, he explains, “It’s got little trees and everything – what your Yanks call a shopping mall. You’ve got your high-street chains, cinema, bowling alleys, cafs, restaurants, all under one roof.” Bean is great, really selling the complete lack of elegance from a thug who desperately wants to be taken seriously.

Jarrold does an excellent job capturing a sense of the bleak landscape of Yorkshire, where even the green fields become a washed out grey and the sky seems desaturated. There’s a sense of an untamed wilderness here, something very raw and a lot more primal than other hubs of civilisation. The fields are decorated with burnt-out traveller encampments and the familiar sight of giant grey nuclear power plant silos. It’s dreary and depressing, but it’s also eerie and a little beautiful.

Getting it through his think skull…

There is a hint watching Red Riding: 1974 that the trilogy misses the second book in the published quadrilogy. Although this film isn’t diminished nearly as much as Red Riding: 1980, it’s clear that there are threads that are intended to lead elsewhere. There’s the mysterious Bob Fraser (“one of the good ones”) who is curiously absent from the following films, and the exhausted Jack Whitehead, which feels like a waste of Eddie Marsan. Still, that’s a minor complaint as complaints go.

Read our complete reviews of the Red Riding trilogy:

Red Riding: 1974 is easily the best of a strong trilogy, and a fantastic place to start. It has a rich atmosphere, a great cast and it actually stands up relatively well on its own terms. If you are looking for many of the familiar noir devices in a strange setting, then Red Riding: 1974 might just be for you.

2 Responses

  1. Great feature. This film (and the book) sounds interesting. As you say, it sounds like it’s probably not an accurate reflection of the time but the way it blends with current concerns is interesting. The visuals look fantastic in these images. Thanks for posting this, I might try to check it out.

    • Thanks Natalie.

      I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s actually easier to watch Stateside than it is over here. Try 1974, to get a taste of it. If you like it, continue. If it’s not your cup of tea, at least you get a warning. (And 1974 is the best of the bunch, in my opinion.)

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