Seldom does the nuance and grit of hard-boiled and noir crime fiction translate to the screen. A brilliant exception is the movie adaptations of English writer David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet of books.
Tony Crisoni – who has very few credits of note under his belt with the exception of the screenplay for the 1998 version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – has taken Peace’s dense, multi-layered alternative history of murder and police corruption in northern England in the seventies and early eighties, and delivered three disturbing and gripping movies. A feat that is all the more amazing given they were made for TV in the UK.
The first film, 1974, follows cocky young reporter Eddie Dunford as he attempts to prize open the mystery surrounding the unsolved murders of a number of young girls, the latest of whom has just been found sexually abused and with swan’s wings stitched to her back.
In the course of his investigation he comes into contact with John Dawson, a local businessman embroiled in a corrupt relationship with the police, and BJ, an elusive male prostitute. He also becomes sexually involved with the despondent mother of one of the missing girls. In the face of escalating threats, Dunford continues his efforts to find the truth with horrendous consequences.
1980, the second instalment fast forwards to the last month of the real-life investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper. Assistant Constable Peter Hunter, or ‘Saint Cunt’ as his enemies in the force dub him, is recruited to lead an internal inquiry into the police’s handling of the Ripper murders. The public and media are baying for an outcome and police morale is at rock bottom. Reviewing the cases, Hunter discovers one of the killings is not related to the Ripper but to the aftermath of a particularly brutal shoot-out involving crooked cops.
The last film, 1983, focuses on Maurice Jobson, a policeman featured only in the background of the previous two instalments, who is now deeply regretful of his role in past police abuses. The lives of Jobson, BJ, and a washed up lawyer whose father was himself an infamous member of West Yorkshire’s finest, all collide towards the series’ conclusion.
The three films work on virtually every level I can think of.
The attention to period detail is meticulous. Supplementing this, each film has a distinctive look due to each being shot using different techniques. The first one is on grainy 16mm, giving it a boxed in, shadowy feeling, which gradually gets lighter with each installment.
There are some fine performances, many of them from among the cast of actors only familiar to Australian viewers as the mainstays of the UK police procedurals that dominate our TV screens every Friday and Saturday night. These include Warren Clarke (Andy Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe) and Jim Carter who are chilling as corrupt senior police, and Paddy Considine as Assistant Chief Constable Hunter. Sean Bean is also excellent as the repellent Dawson.
Much of the power of all three films flows from their depiction of the bleak coal mining towns of the north of England. The characters traverse a landscape of rundown housing estates in the shadow of massive power plants, endless rain and sullen workingmen’s clubs.
It feels like an alien country and the locals are merciless in enforcing their own code of conduct. In one particularly memorable scene towards the end of 1974, Dunford, northern born but having only recently returned from a stint working as a journalist further south, is tortured by corrupt cops. Beaten and bloody he is thrown into the back of a van. One of the cops flings open the rear door to reveal a two lane black top in the middle of an endless flat stretch of rain beaten nowhere. “See this?” the cop says. “This is the north and we do what we want.”
It works so well, because Peace was West Yorkshire born and raised. Obsessed by the Ripper case as a boy, he has recalled wagging school to go rubber necking outside the court when the real Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was finally apprehended in 1983.
Peace’s northern England is terrorised first by a mass murderer, second by the police who are supposed to protect it, and finally by conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her quest to smash the miners’ union.
The Red Riding Trilogy is available in dvd by Studio Canal and Madman