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REVIEW – Red Riding : 1983 (2009)

May 26, 2009

The first two adaptations of David Peace’s novels have been characterised by a stylistic dualism.  Their foregrounds are both occupied by more of less convincing Crime tropes.  Searches for murderers, attempts to ferret out corrupt cops, investigations of conspiracies and doomed love stories.  However, the meat of these two films lay not in the foreground, but in the background.  Red Riding : 1974 and 1980 were films whose visuals spoke of an encroaching and slowly expanding evil.  An evil that slowly becomes systemic before taking on almost mythological proportions.  Visually the films gave us an image of the North as a Garden of Eden fallen into the worst kind of sin.  Red Riding : 1983 undoes a lot of that work by using words to fill in beautiful cracks and gaps left by powerful images.  Its obsession with salvation seems naïve and very much like a cop out.  However, the sheer banality of 1983’s evil has a power of its own.

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The plot revolves around the death of a little girl.  A little girl whose post-mortem mutilations closely resemble those of the deaths that were investigated in 1974.  However, the 1974 murders were ‘solved’ when someone with learning difficulties (Daniel Mays) was fitted up for the crimes and sent down in order to draw attention away from John Dawson (Sean Bean), the property developer who actually did commit the murders.  The new murder and ensuing disappearance prompts two men to start investigating the cases.  A down-at-heel solicitor named Big John Piggot (Mark Addy) and Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), the long standing chief of detectives for West Yorkshire police whose conscience is beginning to prick.  Slowly, Piggot realises that the wrong person has been convicted and that a conspiracy has taken place.  Meanwhile, Jobson draws on the advice of a psychic and realises that by deciding to protect Dawson, the force’s top brass has also been covering up Dawson’s associates.  Associates who continue to prey upon local children.

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Structurally, 1983 is intriguing as it relies quite heavily upon flashbacks in order to tell its story but it never makes it clear in which time frame a particular scene is set.  This is most noticeable in a couple of scenes where people come upon dead bodies.  In one scene you see police standing over the body of a dead girl and it is not until quite late in the scene that you realise that this is from one of the 1974 murders.  In another scene, Piggot returns home to find his father dead but the identity of the body is only alluded to in the preceding scene.  Upon first watching the scene I simply could not work out who it was that was actually dead.  This idiosyncratic approach to temporal framing has two repercussions; Firstly, it brings home the idea that, as far as the murders are concerned, the 1983 police find themselves in the same position as they did nine years previously, scratching their heads and wondering what to do.  Secondly, these out-of-time flashbacks also illustrate the extent to which past events weigh heavily upon the minds of people in the present.  The detective is not angst ridden only because of his reaction to the current murders and abductions.  Rather it is an old emotional wound.  One that is colouring his perceptions of the new case.  Similarly, the death of Piggot’s father clearly came as a complete shock to him and has tortured him ever since.  It is only when he uncovers the truth about the murders that his father’s death really makes sense to him.

From 1974

From 1974

From 1980

From 1980

From 1983

From 1983

Visually, 1983 is defined by its hardware.  Where 1974 had the washed out colours of the 16mm film it was shot on and 1980’s cluttered and claustrophobic panoramas were made possible by 35mm film’s incredible depth of field, 1983 was shot using a high definition Red One digital camera allowing not only detailed close-ups but also incredible lighting effects with colourful shadows pressing down on the pools of light cast by lamps and windows creating a world where light and dark are seen to be almost battling for screen time.

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It is just as well that the film’s lighting is so Manichaean as 1983 deals directly with the problem of evil.  Not, like 1980,  in the mystical sense of redemption, but rather in the sense of defeating the evil doer and saving the innocent.  Indeed, the down to earth nature of 1983’s themes are accentuated by the film’s rare flights of fancy.  Images of such fantastical and transcendent mysticism that theycould easily have been plucked from a fantasy film.

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The movement of evil from background to foreground and from mystical force to practical problem can be seen in the way that 1983 fills in the gaps left by the previous films.  In 1974, evil was seen as sin seeping into a new world through a wound in the East Yorkshire establishment.  By 1980 the sin had completely infected the body politic, even attempts at uncovering corruption were distorted and turned against the people trying to solve the problems.  These two films never made clear what it was that bound the police together in their resistance to the truth.  Was it just money?  sex?  political favours?  John Dawson had a finger in every pie and every possible sin seemed to drip from his very pores.  1983 answers the questions hanging over the trilogy by making clear not only what binds the police together, but also what exactly it was that Dawson was involved in.

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The series’ great sense of metaphysical evil is thereby distilled into a mucky books ring, toasted in the back room at the wedding of a senior policeman.  Dawson?  He was just one of a number of grubby paedos who met in a shed and abused local children.

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1983 brings East Yorkshire’s problems down to a human scale.  On one level, this is a grave disappointment and it feels very much like a cop out.  All of that trouble for a few porn magazines?  all  of that money and corruption to defend a bunch of nonces in a shed?  it seems so desperately under-whelming.  It is as though we have been cheated.  This is the evil that saw good men die.  This is the evil that slowed the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper?  Surely that kind of evil can only flow from the highest of levels and from the deepest and darkest of evils?

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In 1996, the Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux was placed on trial.  Throughout his detention, Dutroux claimed to be a member of an international paedophile ring including high-ranking politicians and policemen.  When the judge investigating the case was removed because he had participated in fund-raising dinners held by the missing girls’ parents, the country went into melt-down.  In what has come to be called the “white marches”, 300,000 Belgians marched on the capital.  It seemed that Dutroux was correct, a huge conspiracy was blocking the investigation.  When placed on the stand, the removed judge broke down and spoke of the special protection he had received against the shadowy forces who had taken out contracts on the lives of the investigating magistrates.  The whole Belgian establishment seemed to be involved and the Belgian people raged against their lack of control by taking to the streets.

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Of course, no such conspiracy existed.  While Dutroux had benefited from incompetent police, there was no international paedophile ring pulling the strings above the Belgian government.  It was only one man and few incompetent and corrupt officials who had turned their heads at the wrong time.

This desire to believe in a great incorporeal evil is one of the driving forces behind religion’s handy blaming of all cosmic ills upon some great adversary or event.  Either way, the upshot is that we recognise that the world is a rotten place and, rather than trying to change it from top to bottom, we stick to fighting the battles we can win such as blocking Heathrow runway extensions or demanding that all paedophiles be tracked in real time using google maps so that parents can navigate their children away from local paedos like Pac-Man fleeing colourful ghosts.  This phenomenon is referred to by Adam Curtis as ‘Oh Dearism;, a chronic lack of faith in the power of change and awareness of the horrors of the world which leave us capable only of saying ’oh dear’ whenever evil raises its head.

What Red Riding : 1983 does is strip evil down to size and reflect upon our perception of it.  According to the film, evil is small, shabby and grotty.  It flows not from huge conspiracies and cosmic evil but from a few people looking the other way while a few peoplechance their arm by trying to get what they want by transgressing local laws and customs.  1983 is a mundane film but the fantastical intercedes in it.  It intercedes because we expect battles against evil to be faught on an epic scale, in high definition and with extra added special effects.  We expect evil to be something outside of us, something larger than us but we are all that is here.  There is nothing else.  Evil seems huge because we make ourselves believe that it is.  In 1974 and 1980 the problem of evil seemed intractible.  In 1983 it is revealed to be solvable by a chubby lawyer and a detective willing to do the job he is paid to do.

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Ultimately, I suspect that one’s reaction to Red Riding : 1983 will most likely be determined by the extent to which one agrees with the film’s message.  The idea of endemic corruption is not only a staple of the noir genre, it has also become the default setting for the way we view human nature and the shift of gear within the trilogy from pandering to those beliefs to challenging them may very well seem like a watering down of the series’ bleak message.  But the thing to remember about 1983‘s ending is that it is just one battle and two lives saved.  The evil still inhabits men’s hearts and people are still looking the other way out of fear and self-interest.  Anand Tucker’s film is, for me, a welcome reminder that cynicism can be as much a received and unthinking attitude as naivete.

6 Comments
  1. May 26, 2009 5:34 pm

    Interesting review Jonathan. Certainly, the uplift in mood (entirely the screenwriter’s creation, and not there in the Peace’s novel) was welcome, independent of concerns it was too cinematic or unlikely. I agreed with your point that “cynicism can be as much a received and unthinking attitude as naivete.” Your argument, and the Adam Curtis piece reminded me of the Time Out New York review for Crossing Over (2009), the latest Liberal Hollywood to the world, specifically this:

    “Movies like Crossing Over and Babel aren’t cultural indictments (that requires focus) so much as softheaded shrugs. Let this be the last of a kind of cloying, paranoid cinema we should all be sick and tired of.”

    Certainly, this trend towards misanthropy and cynicism found spirited voice in 70’s Hollywood, but the overall story was the public could only stick so many Pakula thrillers and Taxi Drivers etc and something positive had to give – that positive, full of certainities obviously arrived in Star Wars in a big way. It’s a reminder that while art might be a dumping ground for our collective anxieties, it’s also home to our aspirations and hopes too.

    http://www.timeout.com/film/newyork/reviews/86760/crossing-over.html

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  2. May 26, 2009 9:10 pm

    Babel is definitely a half-hearted shrug. I’ve also found that about a lot of the films dealing with the Iraq war; lots of “this is REALLY fucked up” but no proper explanations or offering of alternatives.

    I’m not sure about the cyclical thing though. I think that Star Wars is over 30 years old and the Summer Blockbuster season is starting earlier and earlier and ending later and later. I can’t see that ending any time soon. Hollywood’s auteurist 70s moment was an aberration. We’re even seeing the return of producers overshadowing directors in the way they did back during the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood.

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  3. May 26, 2009 9:43 pm

    “I’ve also found that about a lot of the films dealing with the Iraq war; lots of “this is REALLY fucked up” but no proper explanations or offering of alternatives.”

    Certainly, the number of worthwhile Iraq films is slight. But if we consider the Vietnam films, if wasn’t until the US had pulled out of Vietnam that any films really emerged that warranted any serious attention (save for perhaps Go tell the Spartans, and possibly MASH which sublimated their subject matter by dealing with different wars). And even then these early films (Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Taxi Driver even) dealt with the toll of the war on America and the treatment of troops, resisiting locating themselves too heavily in the war itself (Deer Hunter, controversially, only featuring the war via THAT russian roulette scene).

    It’s no suprise then that perhaps the closest I’ve seen to a decent Iraq war film is perhaps Stop-Loss, which once again deals with the troops treatment when back home.

    I haven’t seen Generation Kill yet but I suspect that might get a bit closer to the matter – though it’s TV obviously.

    > the Summer Blockbuster season is starting earlier and earlier and ending later and later

    True, but what are those films? Apocalyptic gloomfests like Knowing? Thrillers that flirt with reality like the Bourne films. Even superheroes are getting pretty gloomy (Dark Knight and Watchmen, even Iron Man had a middle-eastern context and alluded to a geopolitical reality). I suspect audiences are yearning for a whole world to escape into now like they did with Star Wars, and more recently, just after 9/11, the Lord Of the Rings Trilogy. Maybe that’s what JJ Abrahams Star Trek is reaching for?

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  4. May 27, 2009 10:18 am

    I think the difference is the draft.

    During the Vietnam war chances were that if you were a future movie director you’d either have been drafted OR you would know someone who was drafted. Even if you stayed home and your friends and family survived, you would still have been immersed in a radically changing culture.

    Compare that to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and you have no draft, deaths drawn mainly from the lower social classes and a culture that was largely unchanged and unaffected by the war despite the executive’s claims of existential threat.

    Essentially people are trying to make films about stuff they know nothing about. Even Generation Kill is based upon a book by an embeded reporter and it has all the flaws of the embeded reporter system : it’s way too close to the American soldiers and it has no grasp of wider context either culturally or militarily.

    I haven’t seen Stop-Loss but I did see In The Valley of Elah and that dealt with what happened once the troops came home (but even then most of the interesting stuff was left on the cutting room floor).

    I think a lot of blockbusters flirt with gloominess but little more. The Dark Knight’s ending reset the status quo (Batman is back to being a lone avenging angel outside the law), Watchmen was dreary but it tanked (as did Knowing) and Iron Man was quite upbeat and its geopolitical overtones were little more than guys with guns and beards.

    Star Trek is a better example as it’s not only about building a better world, it’s about taking a world that is entirely familiar to audiences and turning back the clock on it, taking out all of the tedious complicated bits and stripping it back to action and special effects.

    People always want to escape but they’repicky about which worlds they escape too and they prefer (offly enough) the nicer ones. The ones that make sense.

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  5. Alasdair permalink
    June 28, 2009 11:12 pm

    Really enjoyed all of your reviews of the trilogy but I thought I should point out that the events are happening in West Yorkshire and not East.

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