David Peace’s extraordinary series of literary crime novels (known collectively as the Red Riding Quartet) are the basis for this, Revolution Films’ beautifully made trilogy of movies adapted for the screen by Tony Grisoni (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, “The Man who Killed Don Quixote”), which attempt to recreate the novelist’s violent, disturbingly dark vision of Yorkshire in the mid-’70s and early-’80s, specifically the period during which the region found itself traumatised by a vicious series of assaults and murders carried out between July 1975 and April 1980 by serial killer Peter William Sutcliffe -- dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ by the British press.
Peace recalls growing up during this time, coming home from school each day with “- the seemingly never-ending and very real fear that my mother could be the next victim, that next black and white photo on the front of the Sunday Mirror”. Over four densely plotted and intensely bleak novels (‘1974’, ‘1977’, ‘1980’ and ‘1983’), Peace wove an intricate, uncompromising tale of murder, child abuse, local Government corruption and police brutality, catapulting his nefarious, fictional cast of characters made up of racist coppers, gangland business men, child killers, brutalised prostitutes and rent boys, and dodgy, drink-sozzled newspaper hacks and solicitors, slap-bang into the middle of the very real and historically documented facts concerning the investigation conducted by the West Yorkshire Constabulary as they sought to bring the Ripper to justice.
The novels fall into the controversial literary category known as ‘faction’: for instance, although Peace accurately describes the Ripper victims’ appalling injuries and many of the locations in which the crimes took place, and has clearly heavily researched and written-in many details from the real investigation, he changes all of the victims’ names in the novels (as well as the Ripper’s, who is renamed Peter Williams), thus distancing himself from any notion that the books are intended in any way as reportage. The team of officers investigating the case are entirely fictional, although some of their descriptions clearly are based on some of the senior detectives involved in the actual investigation. This technique enables Peace to move the fictional characters already established in “1974”, the first novel, right into the centre of the Ripper enquiry; while the Ripper enquiry thus becomes central to his labyrinthine, overarching noir-influenced plot.
Peace’s literary version of Yorkshire is a deathly, rain-sodden place of broiling hatred, grubby violence and acute hopelessness. For these three films, despite the fact that each one still preserves its individual character (having been directed by three different directors in a variety of visual formats) a highly stylised visual representation of Yorkshire is nevertheless maintained throughout; one with a very particular bleak and drearily oppressive atmosphere, in which it is invariably raining heavily; where miles of forlorn terraced streets crouch under sheets of churning black storm clouds, giving each of the films a vividly Urban Gothic visual character. The location and its attendant atmosphere becomes almost a brooding character in itself, defining Peace’s belief that: “- particular crimes happen in particular places to particular people”. Screenwriter Tony Grisoni echoes the author’s ethos: “Yorkshire in the ’70’s and 80’s was a hostile place; the UK was a pretty hostile place, and … that area in that period was a hostile place -- particularly to women”.
The name ‘Red Riding’ alludes to the historic administrative and electoral subdivisions of Yorkshire: the East, West and North Ridings, which along with York itself, once made up the region on the map pre-1974, when the first of the series of books and the first of the three films is set. The other connotation is, of course with the Red Riding Hood fairy tale: In 1974 the North of England was still coming to terms with the horrors of the ‘Moors Murders’ case which had come to light almost ten years previously. One of the five children murdered by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley was buried on a portion of Saddleworth Moor that crossed into the West Riding region of Yorkshire. The first film evokes this morbid history and sets up a world where iniquity and vice rule, just as much in the violent character of the rule of Law as in the squalid nature of the crimes themselves. In fact they begin to merge seamlessly into one great conspiracy of Hell on Earth.
“1974” follows in the steps of Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield): a ruthlessly ambitious young reporter who has recently returned to his native Yorkshire after a stint in London to take up a post as local crime correspondent with the ‘Yorkshire Post’ -- as well as to attend the funeral of his father. When eight-year old Clare Kempley goes missing from her home in Morely, Eddie knows the case could be his big chance to make a name for himself: “the by-line boy at last”. Sure enough, when the body of the girl -- “tortured, raped and strangled … in that order!” -- is found dumped on a Yorkshire construction site, Dunford draws parallels with two previous unsolved cases in 1969 and 1972. Two children missing in the same area and seemingly no-one interested in pursuing the possibility of any links with the current case. Things begin to take on an even more sinister character though when the autopsy report reveals that a pair of swans wings had been stitched into the girl’s back and the words ‘4LUV’ carved into her chest! An anonymous tip-off brings Dunford to the site of a gypsy encampment which has been subjected to a mysterious arson attack. The camp was also on land belonging to ‘Dawson Construction’ -- the same company which owns the site on which Clare’s body was discovered. Eddie’s career ambitions eventually start to take a back seat to his developing feelings for one of the mothers of the other missing children, Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), and he soon becomes obsessed with discovering the truth, especially when he finds out that she too has links with John Dawson (Sean Bean), the powerful Yorkshire construction magnate. But Eddie has unwittingly strayed into a violent world of corruption and greed where everyone, even the police apparently investigating the murder, has every reason to hide many things that the case might risk blowing wide open.
Director Julian Jarrold’s film is shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, attempting to recreate the visual texture of the ’70s paranoid conspiracy thriller genre that Grisoni’s screenplay in many ways resembles. Of the three films here, “1974” is the one which most concerns itself with “Life on Mars” retro ’70s stylings: in clothes, cars, wallpaper and hairstyles -- the overall mise en scène in fact, which extends to everything on screen seemingly being lit through a kind of soft focus veil of beige-orange murkiness, like a faded old ’70s Polaroid. As with all the films, performances are universally excellent. A second viewing after having seen all three, reveals extra nuances in the performances of major actors which will go unnoticed the first time around, since they have almost only cameo appearances in this first film, only taking centre stage later on in the trilogy when we finally get to see what is really going on from a different perspective. After seeing them in this highly stylised film, it is almost a shock to witness many of the same characters appear again with the very different perspectives and visual tone of director James Marshe’s “1980”. Shot on full-blown 35mm, unusually for TV in 2.35:1 scope (“1974” is in standard 1.85:1), the film looks pin-sharp and very rich in colour, despite the often grim Yorkshire surroundings.
This time the protagonist is Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), an officer with the Manchester police force who is assigned by the Home Office to review the Yorkshire division’s ‘Ripper’ inquiry after six long years of impasse (during which there have been thirteen victims assigned to the killer) have failed to bring any prospect of a resolution to the case. There is a developing climate of hysteria with the public and increasing hostility from the press towards the police and their perceived incompetence. Now, Hunter and his team, which includes a former lover of his, Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), find their investigation blocked at every turn by a resentful Yorkshire murder squad who feel they’re being made scapegoats for the Ripper’s continued reign of terror.
But is there something more going on beneath the surface of their intransigence? Six years before in 1974, Hunter made many enemies with the Yorkshire force when he was sent to investigate a series of shootings in a club which left two police officers wounded. He was forced to abandon his inquiry back then after his wife suffered a miscarriage, but many of the same faces seem to be deeply entrenched in the Ripper investigation, and they all still seem to have a lot they want to hide! The more he looks into the case, the more convinced Hunter becomes that one of the victims was not really one of the Ripper’s at all, especially when one of the wounded officers he initially came to Yorkshire to interview back then turns up dead, along with his young daughter! He realises that someone involved with the events that took place in 1974 wants to use the case to bury a few truths of their own, even if it means jeopardising the hunt for the Ripper. Just like Eddie Dunford though, Hunter has no idea just how deep the rot goes: soon he is being blackmailed and threatened and his reputation maligned; even his house is burned down!
“1980” subtly evokes the period which saw the rise of Margaret Thatcher, while all the while building up an uneasy atmosphere mired in paranoia and the constant sense of a violence always lurking just below the surface of society. The film feels like a stand-alone piece for much of its running time, a sense conveyed also by its very different visual appearance in relation to the other two films, and by the change of aspect ratio. But Grisoldi has worked hard to tie this film in with the events at the end of the first film, making for a satisfying and shocking conclusion, and managing to hone David Peace’s impressionistic prose style into a coherent set of plot points which set up the next film in the trilogy nicely.
“1983” is directed by Anand Tucker and, once again, has its own unique visual style, shot in High Definition digital video, which preserves the sharp-edged modern look of “1980” while also harking back to the bleached visual textures of “1974”. In fact, the film takes us right back to the events of the first film and before, in a series of flashbacks which go as far back as 1969 and the investigation into the murder of the first child victim, as well as giving us more insight into the events depicted in “1974”, this time from the perspective of one of the senior detectives on the case.
When another young girl, Hazel Atkins, goes missing in similar circumstances to those of Clair Kempley nine years previously, local solicitor and confirmed fat slob John Piggott (Mark Addy) is persuaded to take up the case of Michael Myshkin, the young man convicted of the previous child killings back in 1974. Dark memories from his past are revived, for the young John Piggott lived on the same street as the Myshkins as a child; his father, a policeman, also committed suicide back then as well. Meanwhile, Detective Chief superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) can’t help thinking back over the events of 1974 and even those of 1969 when he and his then partner Bill Malloy (Warren Clarke) first started to investigate the original abductions, and is forced, finally, to confront the possible miscarriage of justice he may have been implicated in. When a former friend of Michael Miyshkin, Leonard Cole, the boy who discovered Clair Kempley’s body on the construction site back in 1974, is conveniently targeted by his police colleagues for the abduction of Hazel Atkins, Jobson is faced with a critical crisis of conscious pulling him against the pressure from his superiors and colleagues who want the case neatly tidied away, and forcing him to confront his knowledge that the institutionalised police corruption which he has helped to foster and in which he has participated, has helped to keep a dangerous serial child killer protected from apprehension for over fourteen years!
With this final installment in the trilogy Grisoldi crafts the story into a conventional morality tale, choosing to offer some hope for redemption at the end of it all as well, which is not something that can really be said for Peace’s uncompromising novels! In their own right, all three films work beautifully as an interconnected set of crime dramas that adhere fairly closely to drama conventions while also managing to weave in fact from a specific milieu (at least in the middle film) that adds a chilling air of authenticity to an outrageous conspiracy plot. Inevitably, much material has had to be jettisoned from Peace’s sprawling four book saga. In some ways, the films are a testament to the art of screen adaptation, for, not only was the whole of book Two (“1977”) forcibly dropped because of financial considerations (the Credit Crunch already beginning to make its ugly presence felt in quality TV drama), but Peace’s novels are not conventional crime thrillers to begin with. They present a truly dizzyingly large cast of characters, none of whom are ‘good’ in any normal sense since that’s a concept largely banished from the world Peace has created for the Red Riding Quartet.
Inevitably Grisoldi has had to simplify things, in many instances composting several characters, merging them into one; cutting whole narrative arcs, and tightening up Peace’s somewhat loose sense of plotting, since not everything makes a whole lot of sense in these books, and not every loose end is neatly tied up at the end! This isn’t a criticism of them either. The books are exhilarating texts, sucking the reader in with their savage energy, written as a series of interlocking interior monologues which portray each character’s mental turmoil and their increasingly torturous delirium through a whole host of daring literary devices which would seem pretentious in the extreme if they weren’t deployed with such ruthless confidence. The author develops an eccentric yet unmistakable style over the four book series, one full of staccato rhythms: one sentence paragraphs and one-word sentences rapped out like machine-gun fire, and which it is impossible not to read at a breakneck speed, mimicking the protagonists’ racing, fevered mindset in the process. Repetition becomes another motif, with whole chunks of text appearing again and again, each time with only a minor addition or a minor variation, it has the peculiar effect of slowing and arresting the mind of the character while forcing the reader to race ever faster through the text. There are moments when reading these passages feels like being stuck in the speeding mind of Jack Torrance during a particularly violent burst of insanity at the typewriter while he attempts to rewrite “The Exorcist” at the Overlook Hotel! To even approach replicating it all on screen would require at least a twelve part series. “The Exorcist” isn’t such a far-fetched influence either. The books are full of images and even scenes which appear to me to have been lifted wholesale from William Peter Blatty’s religious Horror classic. There is an unsettling undertow of the supernatural which has largely been removed from Grisoldi’s film adaptations in the interests of preserving genre boundaries, something which the novels go out of their way to shatter just as keenly as they do the distinction between fact and fiction. The upshot is that while these three films are excellent, beautifully shot pieces of high quality drama (which would look even better on the big screen, I suspect), the books are supremely challenging, very disturbing but hugely rewarding classics of modern literature, and you should really do yourselves a favour and check them out as well, even if you don’t normally read crime fiction.
All three films are presented in excellent anamorphic transfers across three discs which each come with a small selection of nonessential deleted scenes and some short behind the scenes 'Making Of' segment, which include interviews with the directors and a select few members of the cast and crew.
A highly DVD recommended set from Optimum Home Entertainment.