The Rumpus Review of the Red Riding Trilogy and a Conversation with Directors Julian Jarrold and James Marsh
The Red Riding Trilogy, which recently opened in U.S. theatres, is both mesmerizing to watch and haunting to remember.
(review by Jeffrey Edalatpour)
The Red Riding Trilogy, which recently opened in U.S. theatres, is both mesmerizing to watch and haunting to remember. Afterward, I longed for the days of thrilling television series that stimulated the senses, as well as the mind. Remember the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, and the hypnotizing first glimpse of Laura, alive on the found video footage? What about the killer’s revelatory confession scene from the original Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren? These series embodied television at its best: they utilized tropes from other genres, such as mystery and melodrama, elevating the production by defying the rigid confines of those very same categories.
The three Red Riding films (entitled 1974, 1980 and 1983), which originally aired on British television, make use of those same genre-busting techniques. The actors, whether in starring or supporting roles, never fail to convince us of their deeply felt emotions, their conflicts, needs, and desires. And, unlike most period films, the costumes — from the 1970s and early 80s — feel lived in, and stained with sweat, not gimmicks on display to evoke nostalgia.
Despite the presence of three different directors, there is also a uniformity of vision to the trilogy, despite their divergent approaches with cinematography and film stock. The setting, in the north of England, is as much a character as the people who inhabit the land there. The scripts, which are based on four novels by David Peace, bind each director to a similar vision of the morally corrupt society that is depicted.
Red Riding distills (at least) two decades of the police procedural — an exhausted genre that offers up grim, soulless storytelling on a daily basis (think Law & Order and CSI) — into something ineffably more moving, and disturbing. The sickness that motivates a man to undertake evil remains elusive, unanswerable, and all the more appalling because of it. No easy, slick solutions emerge from an immaculate lab to tell us which men have committed the crimes. In the world of Red Riding, heroes simply fail, just like the rest of us.
A Conversation with Julian Jarrold and James Marsh
by Jason Jude Chan
The Rumpus: Novelist David Peace and his Red Riding quartet are not particularly well-known in the US. How would you describe the books, and what was it about the material that reeled you in?
Julian Jarrold, director of 1974: People have discovered him because of this series, Damned Utd, and now the Tokyo Trilogy. His story is interesting because he went to Tokyo and married a local girl and wrote these novels in exile, remembering this very dark world of his childhood from afar while also threading in his passion for noir novels. I suppose that is what really attracted me, along with this very extraordinary sort of incantatory prose style which is subjective, repetitive, and almost poetic. It paints this incredibly specific picture of Yorkshire in the ’70s and ’80s, full of very local, very vivid textures but with this demonic, noirish quality as well.
James Marsh, director of 1980: It’s definitely very unusual for British fiction. There is this sort of James Ellroy quality to what he did, which is to combine dramatic elements of real life and then imagine and plot around them – the delirious world of fact mingling with fiction. Which I had never quite seen in British writing. It was so specific to a time and place, it felt very real. And the kind of noir elements felt very organic to the world he created; it didn’t feel like an artificial gloss that he was putting on.
The other thing I thought was interesting about his work – not just the quartet, but Damned Utd and GB84, which is this epic account of the miner’s strike in Britain in 1984 – he has used these real, epic stories that were available to us all, that were already part of the recent history of this country, and expressed them in a way that was truly gripping. He distilled them into these great narratives and books.
Jarrold: Also, I think people – throughout England anyway – are unsettled by the extremity with which he portrays the West Yorkshire police. There’s almost a sense that you’re in a police state, that conspiracies lay around every corner. That’s something people think is too much. Yet, because it’s based on a lot of true stories and characters, for each accusation he provides an instance or example that supports his case. He has this phrase that sounds rather pretentious: “fiction torn from facts to illuminate the truth.” Which does encapsulate his working method.
Rumpus: With all the noir earmarks, which directors and films were stylistic influences?
Marsh: We both cited those great American conspiracy films of the ’70s. In the shadow of Watergate we had these 5, 6, 7, 8 wonderful movies. One was Parallax View. Another was the Conversation. And Klute, shot by Gordon Willis. Just a beautifully shot film.
Jarrold: Chinatown was another one.
Marsh: These are all great films and they speak of a time when one’s paranoia was justified. Stylistically, those films show you a world where you can trust nobody and, outside of every frame of the film, there’s something going on that you shouldn’t trust either. That was something I definitely got out of that brilliant flourishing in American conspiracy thrillers and I think David’s books come from and speak of an era in the UK when you were also right to be paranoid.
Jarrold: None of them had endings with a normal closure. Certainly not a happy ending. There’s usually an open-ended quality that signals that this kind of corruption will continue.
Marsh: Actually, there’s something of this in Jacobean tragedy. There’s one called The White Devil by John Webster where, in the end, there’s just bodies all over the stage. I thought that was definitely an idea I had in 1980. Unlike Shakespeare – where there’s often a suggestion of the world finding its balance again, of order being restored – in Jacobean tragedy you never get that sense. There’s never an illusion created for you. It ends, often, in a version of nihilism. Something of that sensibility was at work in 1980, where you had the triumph of a greater evil. That’s probably true of the whole series, but it felt particularly true to the film I was focused on. The good man in the bad world is gonna be fucked, quite honestly.
Rumpus: I think actor David Morrissey said in another interview that the corruption is like “ink in water, it just paints the whole thing.”
Jarrold: It’s interesting that corruption was perhaps a little bit more amateurish and haphazard in 1974 and becomes entrenched by 1980. That was a powerful thing for me when watching them all together.
Marsh: Well, it’s the idea that one lie begets another. And every act of corruption begets another, which begets another. And the moment you’re tainted by the disease, that’s it. You have it for life.
Rumpus: James Marsh, I know you tabbed 1980 as the script and story you wanted. Julian, did you get to choose 1974?
Jarrold: I liked 1974. I liked Eddie Dunford [ed: the protagonist of the three films] viewed through his faults. I liked the idea of going on the journey with him and being quite subjective. Everything you find out seems to be through his dreams and nightmares, not his investigations. It was a great contrast to what I had done previously and I very much like to do the opposite of what I’ve just done if possible.
Rumpus: Tying back to that: since you had the first go, what kind of tone did you want to establish? Did you feel any sort of pressure in knowing you had the lead-in for the trilogy?
Jarrold: Well, we were all sold on the idea that we were making our own self-contained films, which had a greater weight when put together, of course. I didn’t particularly think about it at the time. I just did it. I mean I suppose it was slightly easier as I didn’t have to worry at all about back stories being set up. You were meeting the characters for the first time. [Screenwriter] Tony Grisoni did a fantastic job on the scripts. They’re very distinctively-written, and they were scripts that any director would have loved to get their hands on.
Rumpus: How closely did each of you work with him and what impact did that collaboration have on the tone and look of your film?
Marsh: He’d spent so long filleting these incredibly dense, complex books. I mean the books are big chunky books. They’re not like slim novellas. So we were presented with three plays that were written by Tony and his was the presiding intelligence across the whole series. The process I went through with him was taking things out and essentially making it tighter, tougher. I actually took out the more mystical elements that you find in the other two films – the dreams, the omens, and the premonitions – because I felt that the world was interesting enough without those. I didn’t need the layer of feverish delirium that you find in Julian’s film and in 1983. Also, I made the ending much tighter than in the original screenplay. I wanted to make the betrayal active and taut. “Nasty, brutish, and short” was the cliché for that.
Jarrold: It’s a testament to what he’s done that it does have coherence even though we’re all looking at it from different points of view. I think it’s very interesting about nightmares because 1974 was such a paranoid era that it feels right that there were they crazy things going on.
Marsh: Usually, I have a problem with flashbacks and dream sequences. But in this case, they’re absolutely necessary. They were blended into the unfolding, actual nightmare of your character’s journey. I think Hunter [played by Paddy Considine in 1980] is a rational character. What happens to him is like Kafka almost. It’s like The Castle. It’s inexplicable for a man like that to endure what he does. I wanted to try to make that a cool, detached undertaking and to make the nightmares actually real.
Jarrold: I read something the other day that said, “Can you name one film with a dream sequence that actually works?”
Marsh: [Laughs] Oh, but I can name several. Los Olvidados. The meat scene.
Jarrold: 8 1/2. Those Bergman films.
Marsh: Wild Strawberries.
Marsh: So he’s wrong about that. We could go on and on. Even in the Conversation. Midnight Cowboy had some good flashbacks in it.
Rumpus: The film is stunning for how evocative it is. Do you remember the era or the actual cases depicted in the trilogy, such as the abductions and the Ripper?
Jarrold: I grew up in a smallish, provincial town. Very comfortable. Then as a student I went to the East and it did seem like a cultural change. It did seem darker, more brutal in a way, but I think that’s changed a lot.
Marsh: For me, no. I had no specific 1980 recollection, but I do remember Spandau Ballet and the New Romantics beginning to happen. So I was more in tune with music and fashion than I was with that kind of visual culture. So I had to go back and look at stuff. Also I wanted to try to avoid anything that felt like period ornamentation. Not to enjoy the period in the way that you can in some British heritage-type films.
Rumpus: Given the overall bleakness and brutality of the series, did Channel 4 require any sort of artistic compromises?
Jarrold: Sure, they were worried about the misogyny and the violence with the children. I suppose I veered away from showing anything explicit, but you can also get away with much more on Channel 4 than you can on the BBC.
Marsh: It’s like HBO or Canal+ in France. But they were very nervous about doing these. They were also nervous about the Yorkshire Ripper as being well within living memory. We actually had a few issues when the film was seen by the executives. One was the use of the word “cunt.” You can’t say it before 10 o’clock. My film was shown at 9 o’clock and one of the first dialogue scenes has that word in it. So the compromise was that we had it off-camera. Except I made the cut on the “c,” so it became way more stressed. It made a big deal out of what could have been thrown away, but it felt very important thematically. Basically, Hunter comes to meet these powerful, Freemasonic police chiefs and they let him know that he’s being cast to the fucking wolves straight away. They say to him “You were known as Saint Cunt weren’t you?” to remind him of how vulnerable he is. It’s a very important use of the word since it’s one of those words in the English language that still has a kind of charge. It has an interesting history actually. The word used to be “queynte” and in Chaucer there’s a reference to a woman’s “queynte.” It was a very nice, endearing term for a woman’s private parts. But by the time you get to Shakespearean English, it’s become more of a “cunt” and the sound of it has taken over the meaning. Therefore, it becomes the most taboo word in the English language. But to be fair to Channel 4, they signed up for what they got. And that was brave of them.