The '70s were ugly enough wherever you lived, but to judge from the three 2009 British TV movies adapted from David Peace's Red Riding quartet (each novel named after a year between 1974 and 1983 —1977 somehow got lost in the shuffle), nowhere more so than in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It's not just the graffiti-smeared masonry, the bleak roads through wastelands, the nuclear-reactor towers, the soul-crushing council housing, the terror of the Yorkshire Ripper (13 victims before anyone was charged), the terror of Margaret Thatcher, or even the bad clothes and haircuts. There was also, worst of all, the perception of those sworn to uphold the law. "Who are you going to call if someone breaks down your door, kills your dog, and rapes your wife?" one cop asks, rhetorically. "Certainly not the Yorkshire police," comes the reply. "They'd already be there."
Red Riding — 1974 | Directed by Julian Jarrold | Written by Tony Grisoni, based on the novels by David Peace | with Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, and Sean Bran | IFC Films | 105 minutes
Red Riding — 1980 | Directed by James Marsh | Written by Tony Grisoni, based on the novels by David Peace | with Paddy Considine, Maxine Peake, and Sean Harris | IFC Films | 96 minutes
Red Riding — 1983 | Directed by Anand Tucker | Written by Tony Grisoni, based on the novels by David Peace | with Mark Addy, David Morrissey, Robert Sheehan, Saskia Reeves, and Peter Mullan | IFC Films | 104 minutes
The three films — now being released as a trio in the US — wallow in this brutal morass, but they don't add much clarity — moral or narrative. The text might be the problem — I've read the last in the series, and it's like Frank Miller rewriting John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Of these adaptations, Julian Jarrold's 1974 is the most stylish and James Marsh's 1980 the most coherent. Anand Tucker's 1983, which has the unenviable task of tying it all together, is a mess.
1974 sets the template, and it establishes the setting with the most evocatively depressing imagery. Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) is out to make a name for himself at the local paper. First day on the job, he attends a police press conference about a girl. Eddie does some research, comes up with similar cases, uncovers corruption involving rogue police and a wealthy developer, gets suspicious, then starts crusading (it is, after all, just after Watergate), pokes around places he shouldn't, sleeps with the wrong people, and gets beaten up by the cops, but he doesn't give up. Does he solve the mystery? Hardly. We've got about 10 more years to go.
In 1980, the do-gooder is Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), an outsider sent in because the locals can't solve any crimes (or is that because they're committing most of them?). In addition to the child abductions and murders, the Ripper has been at work, and then there's that unsolved massacre at the Karachi Club a few years back. Plus, Hunter's marriage is on the rocks, and he has an unprofessional relationship with a female member of his team. But he persists, witnesses are offed, his house is burned down, and we still have three years to go.