Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Red Riding: 1974

In England’s working class West Yorkshire region, public corruption is so systemic, it makes New Jersey look like a paragon of civic virtue. Such is the picture that emerges in David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, a series of four closely linked Yorkshire-based crime novels. What were four books became three films produced for British television, all adapted by screenwriter Tony Grisoni and largely sharing the same cast, but helmed by different directors. For one-week only, all three films screen theatrically back-to-back (with two intermissions) in a special Red Riding Roadshow presentation exclusively at New York’s IFC Center, which includes free popcorn and a collector’s program all for a mere $25.

As Julian Jarrold’s Red Riding 1974 (trailer here) opens, viewers should not put too much faith in rookie reporter Eddie Dunford. With two more films to go in the cycle, it is doubtful he will be able to purge Yorkshire’s corruption right from the get-go. Having made a hash of his previous big city journalism gig, he hardly seems the man for the job anyway. Still, along with his obsessive colleague Barry Gannon, Dunford might be one of the few reporters willing to challenge the compromised Yorkshire police force.

Sensing a scoop, Dunford identifies similarities in several abductions of young Yorkshire girls suggesting the work of a serial predator. In pursuing the story, Dunford somehow gets involved with Paula Garland, the still grieving mother of the long missing Jeanette. Meanwhile, Gannon has muck-raked a thick file on the shady dealings of local real estate mogul John Dawson, a committed Labour man, because unlike Conservatives, they stay bought. When the not-so-paranoid-after-all Gannon turns up dead, Dunford realizes both Dawson and his allies in the Yorkshire force might be implicated in both their investigations.

Of the three films comprising Red Riding, 1974 is probably the weakest link because its central protagonist is so problematic. Granted, his inexperience and rashness are well established, but every choice he makes are glaringly obvious mistakes, which often strains the film’s credibility as a result. Indeed, such immaturity hardly makes for a likable character, though too be fair, Dunford has his moments.

Jarrold’s feverish style is not necessarily the best approach for this gritty material, but he does convey a sense of the dreariness of 1970’s Yorkshire, a landscape dominated by ominous looking nuclear reactors. 1974’s strongest asset might be a rich supporting cast that personifies the seedy character of the series. Eddie Marsan is spot-on perfect as Jack Whitehead, Dunford’s alcoholic rival on the Yorkshire crime beat, while Warren Clarke exudes appropriate malevolence as DCS Bill Molloy, Red Riding’s Darth Vader.

1974 is a fair beginning to a great trilogy that really catches fire with James Marsh’s 1980. While the second film largely stands on its own as well, viewers of the concluding 1983 will probably be lost if they have not first seen 1974. Taken altogether, the intricate and chewy Red Riding trilogy is a really satisfying cinematic experience. The Roadshow starts at the IFC Center this Friday (2/5), with individual screenings beginning the week following (2/12).