REVIEW – Red Riding : 1980 (2009)

On the 8th of March, the West Yorkshire Police Force received a letter purporting to be from the Yorkshire Ripper :

Dear Sir

I am sorry I cannot give my name for obvious reasons. I am the Ripper. I’ve been dubbed a maniac by the Press but not by you, you call me clever and I am. You and your mates haven’t a clue that photo in the paper gave me fits and that bit about killing myself, no chance. I’ve got things to do. My purpose to rid the streets of them sluts. My one regret is that young lassie McDonald, did not know cause changed routine that night. Up to number 8 now you say 7 but remember Preston ’75, get about you know. You were right I travel a bit. You probably look for me in Sunderland, don’t bother, I am not daft, just posted letter there on one of my trips. Not a bad place compared with Chapeltown and Manningham and other places. Warn whores to keep off streets cause I feel it coming on again.

Sorry about young lassie.

Yours respectfully

Jack the Ripper

Might write again later I not sure last one really deserved it. Whores getting younger each time. Old slut next time I hope. Huddersfield never again, too small close call last one.

The letters and tapes that followed were a hoax that sent the struggling West Yorkshire investigation into a tailspin, convincing several senior police officers that the Ripper was from Sunderland.  One particular way in which the letter hindered the investigation was by claiming responsibility for a murder in Preston in 1975.  A murder, it turned out, the Yorkshire Ripper was not actually responsible for.  James Marsh’s Red Riding : 1980, based on a novel by David Peace, considers what might have happened if certainly nefarious elements within the West Yorkshire Police Force had put Wearside Jack’s error to use for their own ends.

If Red Riding : 1974 is a film about the first bite at the apple of original sin then Red Riding : 1980 is the ensuing gag reflex.

Red Riding Trilogy DVD Box Art

Red Riding Trilogy DVD Box Art

As with 1974, 1980 is film that is not defined by what goes on in its foreground.  1974 foregrounded the investigation into the murder of a series of young girls but its looming background and visuals spoke of a clean new world compromised by the choice of greed and ambition over idealism.  1980 follows a similar model in that its foreground is occupied by a traditional crime narrative; the investigation by Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) into the botched chase for the Yorkshire Ripper conducted by the West Yorkshire police force.  However, where 1974’s central narrative felt generic and under-written, 1980’s feels much more substantial.  One might argue that this is due to the iconic presence of the Yorkshire Ripper himself – a criminal bogeyman second only to Jack the Ripper and Myra Hindley in the British psyche – but Marsh does a good job not only of conveying the terror that the Ripper inspired in the wider community but also in driving home the feeling that the West Yorkshire police were utterly out of their depth and prevented from asking for help by dumb pride and a growing sense of shame.


‘Shame’ is arguably the central concept upon which the narratives and themes of Red Riding : 1980 are structured.  Hunter is introduced as a family man with a completely clean sheet.  No skeletons.  No dark past.  But from almost the second he arrives in Leeds, we know this to be false.  Hunter was called in to investigate the shooting that took place at the end of 1974 but while he was away at work, his wife had a miscarriage.  This clearly psychologically scarred his wife and left her as an insecure and damaged creature who is constantly calling her husband in search of reassurance.  While Hunter plays along with this, he clearly harbours some resentment towards his wife.  Resentment that took the form of an ill-judged affair with his trusted lieutenant Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake).  So while Hunter projects an aura of incorruptibility, he is also  plagued by feelings of shame because he was not there when his wife needed him and because he betrayed his wife by sleeping with a work colleague.  Hunter attempts to overcome his feelings of shame by throwing himself into the investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper.  He is intent not only on catching the killer, but also  on exposing the corrupt and incompetent West Yorkshire police force.


The film casually compares all of this to the details of Peter Sutcliffe’s life, setting up a symmetry between the doomed Hunter and the immortalised Ripper.


Peter Sutcliffe was married to Sonia Szurma.  Like Hunter’s wife, Szurma suffered  miscarriages after the couple got married.  Around this time, Sutcliffe was developing an obsessive hatred for prostitutes.  As the film has him say, by means of explanation, that the women he killed were :

“reminding me of the beast that I am”

Despite having a wife at home, Sutcliffe was obsessed with prostitutes.  Reportedly, it was only after a bad experience with one prostitute (possibly involving money) that his obsession turned violent.  When it did, one might well imagine Sutcliffe blaming the women he killed for filling him with unwanted feelings.  Feelings of shame and self-loathing.  Feelings that might well have crystallised around Szurma and her lost children.  In 1980, both Sutcliffe and Hunter were men who betrayed their wives.  Wives who lost their children.  Wives they were unfaithful to.  Hunter projects that shame and sense of guilt onto others by not only portraying himself as whiter-than-white but also by demanding complete moral perfection from the officers around him.  This process of projection can also be seen in Sutcliffe who projected his feelings of self-loathing and shame onto the women he murdered.  Both men wanted to attack their inner demons.  Only one did it with a ball-peen hammer.


The semiotic relationship between Sutcliffe and Hunter is cemented in a short scene that was regrettably cut from the televised version of the film, but which is included on the DVD as an extra.  Sutcliffe sits in the interrogation chamber.  A vision of eerie and almost otherworldly calm surrounded by light like a figure from a work by El Greco or Goya.

The Third of May, 1908

The Third of May, 1908

The complete polar opposite to the other Peter, who stands in the shadows and watches as Sutcliffe reveals his guilt to his wife who merely asks if he is okay.


Peter Sutcliffe murdered at least thirteen women in a series of brutal killings.  He was caught but he struck a blow against his inner demons, as demented as they might be.  Peter Hunter has been out-maneuvered by a West Yorkshire police force quick to outflank the man who would reveal their corruption.  Hunter’s wife is a long way away, both physically and emotionally.  She is not there for him in his darkest hour.


This theme of shame and attempted exorcism also pervades the background and institutions of Red Riding : 1980.  Visually, the film maintains its commitment to modernist architecture but James Marsh dispenses with the colours of the 1970s and replaces them with almost ubiquitous shadow.


He also does away with the wide-open apocalyptic vistas favoured by 1974’s director Julian Jarrold, opting instead for an incredibly claustrophobic film filled with close-ups and arguments in cramped offices with people walking in front of the camera.


This gives the impression of a world that is already fallen and decayed.  A world where up-right people huddle together in small pools of light while they permanently struggle not only with the darkness out there, but the darkness inside them too.


1980 is filled with characters implicated both in the Ripper killings and the events of 1974.  These characters flip sides at the drop of a hat; one second sneering their denials and ignorance into Hunter’s face and the next making desperate pleas to meet with him so that they might unburden themselves of the shame they feel for their past actions.  This need for exorcism is not merely a reflection of how the characters feel but also how the institutions of West Yorkshire feel too.

When Dunford arrives at the beginning of 1974, he is walking into the Garden of Eden seconds after Adam and Eve sank their teeth into the tasty flesh of Original Sin.  1974’s John Dawson is a character who not only corrupts journalists, local politicians and the police, he is also a man who rapes and murders almost at will.  His evil is such that he acts as the serpent in the garden of Eden (or The First Evil in the Buffy The Vampire-Slayer mythos).  He perverts an entire new world with his words and deeds.  Dunford’s North is in the process of becoming corrupt but it is not yet completely rotten.  By the time the events of 1980 come to pass, the world is almost completely beyond redemption.  The bit-players who once sped the poison of corruption through the North’s bloodstream are now dignitaries and gate-keepers to a system they protect with all of the energy and viciousness they displayed in perverting itin the first place.  It is easy for the police to put Wearside Jack’s made up murders to work for them because entire careers have been built upon that very capacity.  A capacity due to  the market for such practices created by Dawson and his many evils.

It is telling that Hunter is brought in to investigate the West Yorkshire force from outside; the home office and senior police from other areas.  It is as though the body politic recognises that it has taken on some poison and tries one last time to vomit out the toxins and exorcise the corruption from within itself.


When Hunter is removed from the case and ‘dealt with’ by the powers that be we see the waters closing over three different worlds : that of Hunter, that of a West Yorkshire police force free of corruption and that of Sutcliffe who ceases to exist as a free man only to be reborn as  an almost mythological figure.


Christ Carrying the Cross by El Greco

Christ Carrying the Cross by El Greco


Myra by Marcus Harvey

Myra by Marcus Harvey

Red Riding : 1980 is superbly acted, brilliantly shot and written with such emotional gravitas and insight that it is easily the equal of any work of noir to appear since the Second World War.  However, its true power lies in its subtext : Not only does it dangle redemption in front of its protagonist’s nose only to force him to engage in an impossible struggle to attain it but the film also seems to castigate him for daring to attempt redemption and exorcism in the first place.  Hunter, the film suggests, is as morally compromised as anyone in the West Yorkshire police force.  He is just as much of a hypocrite and his claims of piety are just as much motivated by his own moral failings.  In fact, the only character to come out of 1980 with anything to show for it is Peter Sutcliffe.  He brutally murdered thirteen women but he did so knowing exactly what he was and exactly why he was doing it. In the world of 1980, everyone claims to be above reproach and so the moral honesty of the Yorkshire Ripper serves as the only beacon in the darkness.  This was the North.  They did what they wanted.


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