When the Red Riding trilogy was screened on Channel Four earlier this year it came very close to making me regret an action I have come to think of as the great cultural emancipation. Five years ago, I unplugged the aerial from my TV, I cut the wire at the wall and forever freed myself from the great cognitive heat sink that is television. It was a close run thing. I was this close to buying a set-top aerial. A few months later with the DVD version now safely in my hands, I am still sure that I made the right decision as Red Riding : 1974 is a film that demands revisiting.
Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) is a northern lad who fled south for an abortive attempt at becoming a Fleet Street journalist. Returning home to a job on the Yorkshire post and a dead father, he seems intent upon rebuilding his career as an investigative journalist despite failing to grasp the dues that need to be paid in order to have that kind of career. The two paths open to Dunford are neatly embodied by Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan) and Jack Whitehead (Eddie Marsan). Barry managed to hang on to his integrity as a journalist but as a result comes across as a paranoid and marginal figure whose skill as a writer forever keeps him one step ahead of his colleagues’ jokes. By contrast, Jack is a swaggering, drunken hack. His integrity long since pissed away in exchange for soft jobs from the editor and empty awards.
After Barry points out similarities between a rash of disappeared little girls, Eddie takes it upon himself to prove that one killer is responsible for a string of recent deaths. However, the more he investigates, the more he realises that the bread crumb trail of clues leads to the door of local property tycoon John Dawson. A man who makes explicit the choice that has always been present in Eddie’s life and which has also defined the lives of Jack and Barry : Sell-out or suffer the consequences. Needless to say, Eddie decides to suffer the consequences and watches as his life is taken apart piece by piece by not only Dawson but the police and the senior journalists who should be protecting the investigative reporter.
Here is the problem : while the film is set up as a moral quandary, it never really presents selling out as a likely choice for Eddie. Garfield is a decent actor who certainly looks like a womanising reporter (or “cunt man” as Bean’s Dawson puts it) but one never gets the impression that he is in any way conflicted. In fact, one does not get much of an impression at all of what Eddie Dunford’s inner life might be like. He just goes from happy, to upset, to insane with very little nuance along the way. This is rather disappointing as the script contains hints of a more complex character than the one we get on screen.
For example, Dunford is supposed to have failed as a reporter in London and so one might expect his initial cockiness to be tempered by vulnerability but Garfield and director Julian Jarrold fail to get this duality across. Also interesting is the fact that Dunford clearly uses his looks to get what he wants. Every source Dunford encounters is pressed in a sexualised way. For example, Dunford seduces the mother of one of the dead little girls in order to find out what she knows. He then blags his way into a mental hospital in order to interview an older woman and, again, finds himself talking in hushed and intimate tones whilst coyly fingering the hem of her night dress. More shockingly for the era, Dunford also uses this technique when dealing with the sylph-like male prostitute who used to be Barry’s informer. Sensing emotional fragility and a confrontational attitude, Dunford steps forward and places his hand on the boy’s hip, cooing in his ear that everything is going to be all right.
Given such a complex and conflicted character it is regrettable that the film’s third act appears to be driven by Dunford’s desire to avenge a murdered lover. Because Garfield fails to bring out the paradoxical nature of Eddie Dunford and because Jarrold fails to prime the pumps for such a big emotional outburst, the final act comes across as a weak copy of the ending of Chinatown (1974) but where Polansky spent an entire film explaining how a self-serving media tart like Jake Gittes might fall in love with the vulnerable but secretive Evelyn Mulwray, Jarrold seems to rely upon the chemistry between the two actors to sell his big finale.
Another problem with the film is that it relies far too heavily upon the Dawson character for its depiction of police and government corruption. Dawson is not only a business man who deals with corrupt local government officials, he also pays pet journalists to take down his political enemies and has enough power over the police to get them to act as his own personal goons and cover up his repeated raping and murdering of children. By heaping so much evil onto the shoulders of one man (who might as well change his name to Darth Dawson and be done with it), the film makes corruption appear less like a systemic problem encompassing all of Yorkshire’s political culture at the time and more like a localised and endemic problem involving a few key bad apples in the entourage of one local business man. This makes Dunford’s struggles seem more like a run in with a local gangster than a Heart of Darkness-style realisation of the true nature of the world. While a descent into madness seems an entirely fitting reaction to the second of these problems, as a reaction to the first it feels hopelessly over-elaborate and hyperbolic.
However, while the acting may be slightly uneven and the script might fail to make the most of the huge primeval themes that pervade the narrative, the film’s visuals are full of fireworks. Fireworks that do precisely what the narrative and the acting fail to do; introduce us to a new and terrifying world.
Jarrold is not what you might call an auteur. Looking at his CV, one suspects that he landed this gig based upon his involvement in the seminal noir TV series Cracker. However, since then Jarrold’s career has been characterised by populist feel-good dramas such as Kinky Boots (2005) or Becoming Jane (2007). Certainly nothing to suggest the kind of cinematic skill Jarrold displays here.
The film is shot on the kind of 16mm film that was universally used for outside shots in British TV between the 70s and the 90s. Jarrold’s shots are either swamped by yellow and beige or plunged into dark grey shadows creating an environment reminiscent of that line from Withnail & I about a nicotine-stained, fly-blown lung. Jarrold seems intensely aware of how unreal this can make shots look and so he will ease of those colours at times, only to conjure them again when displaying a burned out Gypsy camp sight or a concussed Eddie. However, where Jarrold really excels is in his use of architecture.
Hodges’ Get Carter (1971) portrays the north as this wind-swept wasteland of crumbling bed-sits and ill-tempered pubs but Jarrold is not content with this type of characterisation. He does include the kind of decaying Victorian terraced housing that one associates with the north but such squalor is presented as very much the exception to the rule. The rule is that the north is a place that is being radically re-built. Council houses are full of modern lines.
Public buildings are temples to modernism.
Even old buildings are presented as having been renovated and renewed.
The impression is that the north is not some kind of vast post-industrial sink-estate, but rather that, despite the bleakness of the landscape, the north is on the move. It is picking itself up, dusting off its industrial past and starting afresh. As in Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), even the local police force are keen to point out that they are newly founded. 1974’s north is a new world. As one character growls whilst point at a featureless landscape “This is the north… we do what we want”.
However, the film suggests that corruption is being built into this new world because of the actions of the people involved in constructing this new future. Dawson’s wife warns Eddie of “the others… beneath the beautiful carpets” and this perfectly encapsulates 1974’s central theme : institutions built upon foundations of moral corruption stay corrupt. This idea of 1974 representing the beginning of an age of corruption rather than a depiction of an already sin-filled world does go some way to justify the creation of the Darth Dawson character. Dawson is not merely a facet of a wider problem, he is the proverbial snake in the garden of eden. He is the man who built the new north and whose capacity not only for evil but for corrupting others introduced the first element of sin into what should have been a bold new world. “This is the north… we do what we want” should have been an expression of freedom, instead it is an expression of tyranny, arrogance and greed.
“Every building resembles a crime” Barry says to Eddie early in the film and nowhere is this more apparent than in Dawson’s home. A collection of strange angles, shining glass and white paint, the house looks like a swan’s wing. The same wings that Dawson sews into the backs of the little girls he kills.
Red Riding : 1974 faces a problem that will be familiar to any writer who has attempted to deal with big ideas. Focus too much upon the big ideas and your film becomes impersonal and filled with exposition. Focus too much on the personal level and the ideas never seem like anything more than the character’s problem. The best way to square this particular circle is to find a way to uses an individual’s problems to illustrate wider trends and this is the option that the film goes for. Unfortunately, the narrative built up around the character of Eddie Dunford is too slight and generic to carry the weight demanded of it. Indeed, upon first watching the film I was convinced that it was little more than a stylish but ultimately throw-away crime story. However, buried in the script and the film’s visuals are a fascinating origin story for a world of noir.