Thursday, March 19, 2009

Reflections on Red Riding

"To the North, where we do what we want".

In the past year or two, Channel 4 has become perhaps the leading terrestrial producer of quality TV drama in the UK with films like "Boy A" and "The Mark of Cain". This year the superb "The Devil's Whore" maintained that high standard.
Now, a three-part adaptation of David Peaces "Yorkshire Quartet" follows along the same path. The films share a single screenwriter - Tony Grisoni - but each part is the work of a different director.

1974 - Julian Jarrold



- The main impression is of utter visual grimness. All of the beauty comes from lovely shots of desolation: rain upon a car window, ominous cloud formations, crumbling, apocalyptic estates. The interiors all seem studies in various shades of brown. The odd beige. Even the car is brown. Hideous wallpaper. Everyone smoking. Leather jackets, sideburns, big collars, flares. Life on Mars without the slight kitsch factor or the nostalgia. Jarrold's direction and Rob Hardy's photography are brilliant - this film is cinematic, its television origins absent in the finished product. No wonder the trilogy is playing theatrically in some territories.

- Arty compositions transcend the narrative - the sex scenes, with their partial shifts in focus, lens flares, obtuse framing: lovely.

- Great locations: that carpark with the low concrete-beam ceiling was absolutely terrifying in its promise of doom, of violence. The 60s-Build house by the moors, isolated, vulnerable to Yorkshire itself. Dawson's modernist mansion, a squat symbol of evil and corruption, all clean lines and cold heartlessness.

- The cast. Familiarity of many of these faces, unfamiliar dread at what lay behind some of them. Sean Bean a revelation, that sense of his hidden violence never put to use so well, especially when combined with his rough charm. Andrew Garfield's boyishness just making him seem more fragile and at risk, his cockiness fading as he began to care and finally to fear what was coming. Their scenes together tense and thrilling - never has the term "lad" been so ominous. Rebecca Hall convincingly haunted, her blondness cheap and tired. The people in smaller parts - David Morrissey, Warren Clarke - promising that the other films would be just as good.

- The shocking violence of the climax was a classic noir ending. Violent action becomes a desperate heroes only recourse. Death visiting so quickly, and in such a banal yet gaudy setting.

- The attempt to reproduce the effect of Peace's fractured, relentless prose was partially successful in the jump-cut non-linearity of it all, Garfield's troubled mental state effectively suggested.

- Non-cliche soundtrack choices: "Hang on In there Baby" by Johnny Bristol, "In the Court of the Crimson King" by King Crimson.

1980 - James Marsh



- This was more conventional, less elliptical, less arty. Relative narrative clarity. Jarrold's film was a personal journey into darkness and obsession, the story of a man being attracted to the flame and getting badly burned. Marsh's was a procedural in which the shadow of police corruption darkens an ongoing investigation with awful consequences.

- Shared visual motifs, however: the Moors, a cremation. Where Jarrold focused on nameplates blistering, Marsh shows us the coffin become a black and orange charcoal case. ANd oddly they shoot the Moors quite differently - Jarrold's compositions are all darkened sky, Marsh's all rolling, endless horizon.

- Paddy Considine is as good as ever, in a far more passive role than usual. None of the ferocity of which he is capable. Here he is bruised, understated, very careful, interior. He seems a man punishing himself. Surrounded by all this monstrous, caricatured masculinity -Northern men, shirtsleeves rolled up, sneers in place.

- The micro-politics of the North of England: these Yorkshiremen see the Mancunian Considine as a "fucking poof", and there is something of the intellectual in the way he converses with them, in his attention to detail and assurance that the Ripper has already been caught and let go. Leeds seems a world away from his homelife in Manchester.

- Men in rooms, arguing, intimidating, avoiding. Corridors, stairwells. This is a film about the process, the office work behind such a massive, long-running investigation, and as such it mostly takes place in administrative buildings, halogen lighting overhead, coffee in glass mugs and dull filing cabinets all part of the mise en scene.

- The opening credits are very James Marsh: the use of contemporary news and interview footage to splice in actors (notably Warren Clark), the grain faithfully reproduced, is reminiscent of both "Wisconsin Death Trip" and some of "Man on Wire". The later passage of a Christmas home video of Considine at his in-laws uncannily accurate in its look and the faultless art direction.

-Here the ending is almost entirely hopeless. No redemption, no glimpse of light, except the capture of the Ripper himself. He is played by Joseph Mawle, who played Jesus in the BBC's "The Passion" last year. Odd how actors who can play Christ so convincingly are at home in disturbing roles as psychopaths. Think Christian Bale who played Jesus in a TV movie about Mary and has played any number of borderline psychotics in his career, not to mention Patric Bateman in "American Psycho". Think also Max von Sydow, Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told", but also hitmen, murderers and even Blofeld in "Never Say Never Again". Mawle is chilling here, his affectless face and politeness falling way when he starts to tell the police about his crimes in detail. Then his madness is calmly revealed and the policemen exchange glances charged with horror and disbelief.

1983 - Anand Tucker



- Always a strange pressure on the concluding part of a series; the need to tie everything up satisfactorily, the need for resolution, closure. More balls in the air, too. Where 1980 could more or less ignore 1974, making only the odd glancing reference, Tucker's film has to refer to both the previous chapters, and recontextualise them, to a certain extent. It's success in doing this is a testament to the adept direction and the clarity of Tony Grisoni's script. Good storytelling, basically.

- The opening scene is fantastic, a flashback featuring the Illuminati of Peace's Red Riding universe, this cabal of bad men out for themselves, bending the law to their will. We witness their conspiracy and hear what may just be their catchphrase: "To the North, where we do whatever we want." Dawson's plans for a massive shopping mall (which we have already heard, in 1974) are outlined, and one of the themes is made clear. In the same way that Ellroy's L.A. Quartet is about the painful, bloody birth of modern Los Angeles, this series seems to depict the birth of modern Yorkshire. The dark, brutal landscape we are shown is dying, a new Yorkshire - modern, a land of shopping malls and thrusting young policemen and reporters (Considine and Garfield's characters were in the right place, just slightly ahead of their time) beginning to emerge.

- Two protagonists are required for this more complex story. David Morrissey's Maurice Jobson finally acts upon the pangs of his conscience, and Morrisey's melancholy frown takes a lot of the entire series' weight. He walks around with his head down, bent beneath all he knows. And Mark Addy, a shambling mess of a man, seems perhaps the only innocent in the entire saga until the final scenes, when his own connection is revealed. Their first meeting, where Addy exerts some moral pressure, is very finely written and acted. Addy's gentleness makes him vulnerable to all these vicious men, whereas Morrissey appears tired of it all, wising it all to be over.

- The subtle changes in art direction and costume are inspired: suits are tighter, shinier, hair is shorter. "Fuck the Argies" reads roadside graffiti. And yet the hills are unchanged, the red houses dwarfed by them and the grey billowing of that immense sky.

- Stylistically, Tucker combines some of Jarrold's risky artiness with Marsh's narrative focus. He features a series of stunning birds eye crane shots of crime scenes. He hitches a camera rig to Addy's chest for a reaction to a horrific discovery. He cuts between slow motion shots of Morrissey and semi-abstract views of the medium's white boots aimlessly circling in a quite Estate street. He repeatedly features a view of a set of Nuclear smokestacks, towering over the landscape with a monolithic malignancy. Characters walk towards them and drive away from them, yet always they remain. But his is the only film of the three with any light in its conclusion: the climactic shot of Addy emerging from the chicken coop is beautiful, and optimistic despite the depravity we have just seen, despite the evil at the heart of the story. David Higgs' photography is just a degree lighter than either of the earlier films. Sunshine had come to Yorkshire by the early 80s, it seems.

- This is the only one of the films that feels urban. It feels as if it is set in the outskirts of a city, the presence of a major conurbation somehow obvious in the atmosphere, the lighting. The other two exist in a world of connected small towns, suburbs to nowhere.

- Never have I seen such wallpaper so consistently captured in a piece of fiction. Here it is though; woodchip, embossed velvet flowered patterns, every imaginable shade of brown...

- Peter Mullan, a dangerous presence in the margins of the other two films, is here allowed to reveal his hand. He is a powerful actor, with a fierce, frightening weight onscreen, and it is as if the charge of his few moments in each of the other films is what kept the whole thing grinding forward. The story itself was waiting for him to step centre-screen and take charge, you feel. Once he does, it must end. He is too big, too dogged and earthy.

- The ending allows BJ, the ghost in the folds of the story, to write his own survivors poem, a paean to Yorkshire itself, over previously-glimpsed footage of him as an innocent child at Blackpool, before the events which set the whole story in motion. It is downbeat and haunting, like the series as a whole. Impressive and powerful and beautiful but also grim and difficult. Worthwhile.

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3 Comments:

Blogger John said...

Totally missed it mate - I was soo pissed I'll have to look out for the DVD now I suppose which is fine no ad's which is always good.

3:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that "1974" was shot on Super 16mm, "1980" on 35mm and "1983" on DV. That explains quite a lot of the difference in feel of the films, and also represents a progressio in technology.

9:49 am  
Blogger David N said...

Makes sense.
You can almost see the proof of it in the three screenshots on the post - from the graininess of 1974 to the sharpness of 1983.

11:35 pm  

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