28 August 2010 | miloc
The landscape of the soul
It is 1974. Our protagonist, young and hip, has shaggy hair, sideburns, and a slick leather jacket. Asked about his suit at his father's funeral: "Carnaby's," he admits. "Oh, ay," says one mourner, with a hint of added dismay.
He's been in the South, you see. American viewers with a limited perception of the UK may, at the beginning of Channel Four's remarkable Red Riding trilogy, have little understanding of what difference that makes. They will soon learn. "This is the North," says one of the terrifying policemen who populate this film's haunted Yorkshire. "Where we do what we want."
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 begins under lowering skies. A girl of ten has vanished. A young and callow crime reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) gets clued in by a conspiracy-minded colleague that the vanishing resembles two previous cases within a close range. Eager to make his mark, he senses opportunity, and in excitement at the idea that a serial murderer might be at work he blurts, "Let's keep our fingers crossed."
As the story deepens, however, so does the character. The grief of the victims' families needles him; he begins a relationship with one girl's heartsick mother (Rebecca Hall). Picking apart the story that emerges, he is drawn into the orbit of a wealthy developer (Sean Bean) with an unwholesome degree of influence in Yorkshire and its power structure. The perpetrator of the crimes is unquestionably psychopathic -- he stitches "angels' wings" into his victims' backs. Yet, in the film's most disturbing element, the police department itself functions as a psychopath, achieving its desires through brutalization, torture, and even possibly murder.
Caught in a conscienceless land, Dunford's own conscience, in reaction, grows, and what began as mere ambition transforms into a perhaps doomed lust for the truth. If this sounds like a conventional trope of the genre, it is -- plotwise much of what happens here is conventional. But Red Riding makes the narrative fresh by treating it not just as a story of crime and justice but as one of the soul, and its environs. When Dunford begs the mother to escape with him from the prevailing madness, he tells her, "In the South the sun shines." What he's telling her is that the sickness is inseparable from the place. Yorkshire is filmed (with gorgeous gloom) as a cloud-shrouded ruin, an economic disaster site in which financial power trumps morality. Starting out fresh-faced, vain, and cocky, Dunford will, by the end of his journey, be considerably the worse for wear. Looking at the landscape around him, we think, how could he not be?
Red Riding 1974 is not flawless -- some scenes feel repetitive and the bleakness can be overwhelming. But it compels you forward, it stays with you, and it genuinely rattles the spirit. This is not easy viewing, but in approaching the continuing saga, it promises hard- earned reward.