Phil Fisk/IFC Films

Andrew Garfield and Sean Bean in Red Riding 1974

Red Riding is better than The Godfather (I’ll try to explain why), but it leaves you feeling so much worse; and the business plan of watching a film is never realized if it doesn’t make you feel it’s leaving you assured, ready to sleep…fulfilled. That’s what we expect from entertainment, isn’t it? Something that’ll give you a warm inner glow at the end of a day when you’ve been ruined, humiliated, out of work, and lied to over your obituary. No need to rub that in, is there? Turn on the telly. You’re less alone with the telly on, and less given to the thought that there are types of loss and anger and betrayal that might have you shouting in the streets. So Red Riding is a deeper pool than The Godfather, but it doesn’t encourage swimming.

How do you watch TV? Put it another way: Is what’s on the box ever capable of being “beautiful”? I’d like to strip those quotation marks away, but I worry that as soon as television looks anywhere near beautiful, we’re being told to respect something because it’s picturesque, or noble, or gracious, something elegant and Ken Burnsy (it’s such an educational medium)—oh, look at that, mother, isn’t that lovely? Wouldn’t you like to be there? I mean, it’s nearly beautiful, isn’t it? It might be a stretch of West Yorkshire moorland, the Manchester road over the Pennines—at sunset or twilight. Just a bit creepy, though. One shot like that, with the wind moaning, and I think of Little Red Riding Hood hurrying to see her gran, with the Ripper waiting in his dirty white van. You could make a song of that, with the rhythm and the rhyming.

We’ll come back to television, but I should say something about Yorkshire first. It is the largest county in Britain, over six thousand square miles, starting about a hundred miles north of London. It is broken into three administrative areas—the Ridings—North, East, and West. There’s no “Red” Riding, except in the imagination. Nor was there ever a house called “Wuthering Heights”—just try forgetting it. Brontë country is only a short drive from Leeds and Sheffield, the big, tough cities in southern Yorkshire. In the minds of most Brits, Yorkshire is famous for a dry crusty accent and the deadpan comedians who use it, for strong beer, purist cricket, the textile industry, and the coal mines. The “pretty” dales and the somber moors. And murder.

They say Guy Fawkes was from Yorkshire, the fellow who tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605, and who is burned in effigy with fireworks every year. Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula there. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was from Yorkshire, also Alan Bennett, Henry Moore, David Hockney, J.B. Priestley, James Mason, Charles Laughton, Judi Dench, and Peter William Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 for the murder of thirteen women, most of them prostitutes, in the southwest Yorkshire area. He’s there still, in Broadmoor, the prison for the criminally insane, where he probably watches television. Don’t those institutions use it as a pacifying agent?

You know where the Ripper mystery comes from—not just the bloody career of that rascal Jack, but his famously unsolved crimes, and the rich rumored forest that includes members of the royal family as suspects (see Paul West’s 1991 novel, The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper). The Yorkshire Ripper, Mr. Sutcliffe (also the name of one of Yorkshire’s greatest cricketers), did his work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, and one of the tasks she most relished was breaking the power of the mining unions (centered in Yorkshire), which had done so much to destroy the career of her Tory predecessor, Edward Heath. That campaign was the background to Billy Elliott, the story of one might-have-been miner who turns to ballet instead.

Lucky Billy, to be inspired just as the mines were being closed. Such career adjustments were rare in Yorkshire, and those Thatcher years are thought of as the period when socialism, prosperity, and employment took a terrible beating in the county. It was a time of abandoned factories, dole lines, and the withering of Yorkshire’s confidence. Yorkshire people were always supposed to be gruff, kind, and sturdy. That’s the doctrine pushed for years by Yorkshire Television (one of the companies involved in making Red Riding), and in soap operas like Emmerdale Farm. But the Yorkshire people in Red Riding are lost souls and driven madmen. In it, a profound effort has been made to imagine that loss—but it’s hardly audience-friendly that in five hours we have so few heroes.


This is all background to Red Riding, three films that are in turn based on four novels by David Peace, born in West Yorkshire in 1967. The four novels— Nineteen Seventy-four, Nineteen Seventy-seven, Nineteen Eighty, Nineteen Eighty-three—were published in Britain between 1999 and 2002. The Yorkshire Post (a distinguished provincial newspaper) said of the first book that it “has done for the county what Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy did for L.A.” That’s a fair point, even if Chandler may have encouraged some people to visit L.A. and explore its cottages in the hills. The comparison with Ellroy is more useful, in that the author of L.A. Confidential and David Peace are equally addicted to what one might call the torrential voice that begins as the sound of barbed talk among the books’ characters, but that ends up as the music or wind blowing through its shattered terrain. (A lot of Red Riding feels like a postapocalyptic story, but some of urban Yorkshire looks like that.)

I turned to Peace’s novels after I had seen Red Riding. I found them compulsive reading but just a little overdone, repetitive, nightmare for nightmare’s sake, torturous (torture is an essential part of the material), and remorselessly accretive. The ambition and the technique build as the stories develop. By the end of the fourth book you feel as if you’ve met everyone in the county, and most of them are tainted by the intrigue. It may be that Peace—who was acclaimed by Granta as one of Britain’s Best Young Novelists in 2003, a year after completing the series—was able to take such paranoiac liberties with his home country because he has lived in Tokyo since 1994. Perhaps he needed to get away. The books are exhausting, inescapable, and sometimes breathtaking, but like the rant of someone shut up with a life sentence. They crowd your head to a point of nausea. But the film is clarified and beautiful.

“Hands flat on the table.” It is the order given by the police before an interrogation, done in the neon moonlight of a cell kept for torture. It is also what the medium asks for as she tries to make contact with some of the little girls who have disappeared. The medium works by candlelight; she has her own atmosphere in which those in the séance must touch hands. But in the police cell, the suspect’s hands are flat so they can be smashed by the steel loop of handcuffs, and then flat again for the cigarettes extinguished in the fracture’s bruising. We learn this grim routine as the series goes on, just as we understand the terrible regime of the police. (There’s another lesson: murder can look so good on screen, but not torture.)

And who has any reason to think that torture is more or less reliable than occult inquiry? We are in West Yorkshire, where vestiges of modern life—places called Leeds and Hunslet, cars, highways, telephones, and television—do not prevent the feeling that we are in the Dark Ages, when hovels cling to the moors, where gypsy camps are set on fire, with the people passing hazardous lives in dread. It is an age when the coppers bring certain pain and contempt, and the medium may be a pale-faced saint on valium, aware that she walks on foul ground where the bodies have been buried for centuries. “This has happened before,” she realizes, uttering tribal wisdom.

The three films are a unity, no matter that they have three directors, three cameramen, and three formats (16mm, 35mm, digital). The look is unified, along with the voice and the mood, so it’s proper to credit Tony Grisoni, who adapted all three films, and producers Andrew Eaton, Anita Overland, and Wendy Brazington, who presided over the entire work. The directors have excelled, but the signature remains David Peace’s torment.

I can offer a synopsis, but don’t expect to find it easily in the films. In the first part, 1974 (directed by Julian Jarrold), Yorkshire is in turmoil over the Ripper’s killings and the disappearance of little girls. The police are heavy-handed and brutal, but they are getting nowhere—in the real Yorkshire Ripper case, there were many accusations of incompetence. A journalist, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), takes on the case. He has an affair with Paula (Rebecca Hall), the mother of one of the lost girls. He realizes that the police may lead the way in breaking the law. He discovers the beginnings of an intrigue between them and a local property developer, John Dawson (Sean Bean). Paula is killed. Eddie shoots down Dawson in revenge. At the close he meets his own end.


In 1980 (directed by James Marsh), a Manchester policeman is called in by the Home Office to examine Yorkshire’s failure to settle the Ripper case. This man is Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine). He is thwarted in every way. His own marriage is disintegrating. Suddenly the Yorkshire police discover the Ripper—the case seems over. But Hunter knows too much. He is killed by other policemen and the feeling dawns that there may be more than one Ripper. Someone was killing prostitutes, but someone is murdering children, too. And murder is a cry that serves the police very well.

Before episode three, 1983 (directed by Anand Tucker), a young man, Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), has confessed to killing some of the children. But he was tortured by the police so he said what they wanted to hear. A washed-up solicitor, John Piggott (Mark Addy), is persuaded by Michael’s mother to seek an appeal. Another policeman, Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), tells him it’s useless—so it seems. But Jobson is nearly at the end of his tether. One of the evil gang, he may be at breaking point himself.

Perhaps I’ve spoiled it—I’ve told the story. But all I’ve done is given you a fighting chance of being able to keep up in the dense gloom and switchback narrative of Red Riding. That’s odd, you say, you thought that everything on television was always supposed to be clear—like the ads and their confidence that you should purchase. The telly once worked on reliable tips: this is the news; buy this version of Viagra—but watch out if you’re still stiff after four hours (you may be dead)! After all, it’s an educational medium: it shows us what happens, doesn’t it? And if they show it, it must have happened. But suppose beauty, with its mystery and doubt, found a side entrance. Suppose there’s a shot of a kid walking over a bright green meadow, where six huge cooling towers grow like dragons. It’s not like a painting, it’s not captioned as “pretty,” but Red Riding gazes into the troubled light and sees poisoned pastoral.

Red Riding is not to be grasped, followed, or understood—that’s why you need to see it. This is not a veiled charge against Tony Grisoni and the others involved for not telling the story plainly. There are many internal elements subverting “organization” or authorship: three films; the adherence to muttered Yorkshire dialects that leave a good deal unheard; and an absolute refusal to let the story be tidy or finished. Whereas the first two parts of The Godfather conclude with set-piece executions that make bows of loose ends and settle the family’s authority, the dedicated viewer of Red Riding will find no such comfort. Throw in a pattern of flashbacks that feel like extensions of the present, and you may see how Red Riding is not just hard to follow—it believes in a culture and a narrative where things no longer click together. You never know the whole story or the larger purposes because the world is no longer run on those pious timetables.

In The Godfather we are made to feel the thrall of Corleone power. That’s what enlists us in the family. So the slaughter of those films—even the bleak consent with which one brother signals the execution of another—is vindicated as the completion of design, and of the daft idea that a presidential Michael Corleone may keep order in an entropic world that is losing its cohesion. Indeed, the Corleones do not recognize entropy or depression: they eat their pasta dinners like hungry boys; they shoot to kill; and they sit in their shadowy rooms making their immaculate plans. It is another proof of assurance in that world that every scheme works—so Michael’s decisive murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey is not just a wish made fact, it is ordained or foretold. It is a scene these guys know by heart and by legend.

There’s one scene in Red Riding out of that heroic film. At the wedding of his daughter, Bill “the Badger” Molloy, chief constable of Yorkshire, gathers his senior policemen in an upstairs room. He reports on progress: the police are organizing vice in the north to make their own fortune out of it. Molloy introduces them to John Dawson, his crony, who plans an enormous mall on the old gypsy campsite, a development with cinemas, bowling alleys, restaurants, in which they’ll all prosper. And then the Badger calls for a toast: “To the North, where we do things our way.”

Molloy’s war cry is terrifying, and I give credit for that to the actor—Warren Clarke—and the uningratiating brutishness of all he does. We have seen the Badger lose his temper already, and it is a fearsome prospect. Moreover, the construction of Red Riding offers this statement of principles late in the story (in the third film), by which time we are in no doubt about the horrors it permitted. The toasting scene also explains the policeman who betrayed and killed Hunter—he was a Badger boy all along, even though he came from Manchester. What remains in the way of revelation is that the Yorkshire police knew who was killing the children early on, but they overlooked the knowledge because it implicated John Dawson.

Yet these coppers have a creed and a dream that is not far from the Corleone five-year plan. It’s just that The Godfather—in all its saturnine grace—is a very old-fashioned and unpolitical film founded in a reactionary view that would always sacrifice life to order and loyalty. And The Godfather was kind to itself in that it showed only gangsters killing one another. Those films have not an inkling of the social damage that comes from organized crime. Whereas Red Riding is the work of someone who has had a breakdown from that damage and its loss of hope.

There is not much family comfort in Red Riding. Many of its characters live alone or in relationships laid waste by mistrust or staleness. There is a priest, but he seems to have gone off down a private track. The women and children worry about being out after dark. One prisoner waits for a far-fetched appeal—he had signed a confession so the police would stop hurting him. They had told him he would never see his mother again. His solicitor has to rouse himself from drunken stupors and a life of failure. Guilt is all that drives him on. Another youth is a prostitute, in and out of prison, helplessly addicted to the cash he can get with his flat charm and his obedient mouth. He is called BJ and he walks through the film like a nomad. In the books he is a chiding lament for the society that has lost its own children.

No one in this Yorkshire expects to be happy or confident; no one seems to admit to a glimmer of hope. There are brief sexual encounters but betrayal is seeded in them. So people eat and drink and they hear the despondent news on the telly. The case of the Yorkshire Ripper—like it or not—is the big public show. If the police conducted themselves for so many years in a way not calculated to catch him, perhaps it was a circus they encouraged—to let the supermall prosper. Perhaps if the real Ripper grew weary, they threw in a quick sex killing of their own. They had the book on how the Ripper worked.

This is a squalid, listless world, where conscientious police or teachers might kill themselves. But it’s our world. If it is beautiful in these films, it is the grace of melancholy. Red Riding ‘s three directors seem to have the same vision: they shoot without establishing shots—after all, what is there to be established? When the center does not hold, there is no place for “master” shots. Many scenes do not pay off: there is no punch line (or money line), no concluding shot that says that’s what this scene did. So scenes end in hiatus or dismay. But that’s the way in life: the biggest lie in film is not the attractive people—it’s the promise of order, payoff, or purpose in a scene. What basis for a scene is there in Red Riding ? It is more that scenes play in fragments, the broken hopes of their participants. Yearning close-ups are surrounded by darkness. Plunged into wild glances and semigloom, claustrophobia is our first response. Very little in the shooting or the editing believes in order or developed intimacy.

Let me go further. Let me advise you of the danger here—the series takes an approach to story that will not find satisfaction. I have watched it three times now (on DVD), and I could not tell you everything that happens, let alone the order of the happening. Call that a movie? you say, as if you believed in pictures with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But haven’t you noticed that no one has that trick or the heart to do it that way now? So many movie stories are humiliated by their tellers’ lack of faith, or by our carelessness—why watch if you can’t follow it? There is a struggle going on in the best filmmaking, and it has to do with this anxiety or suspicion: Do films cheat life any more persistently than by insisting on story? Suppose there are just the years passing and the burial ground of all our forlorn attempts at progress.

So the question returns: How do you watch television? What did you watch last night? Can’t remember? We all know that feeling. Of course, the movies died a long time ago, but television has died in the last few years. When the networks receded into the cable forest (like cavalry forts grown back over by the implacable wilderness), it was good night to the hope that a mass medium is a necessary thing because it holds our potential for chaos at bay. So we all watched Cronkite and Carson once, Lucy and the bright light of her mad household. Yes, it came to that, because all you have to do is turn the set on—and then it usually stays on till you go to bed. Everything indicated that television was a visual medium, but some shrewd observers said it was only radio with pictures. That’s how you could have the TV on all your life waiting for amazing events—like Armstrong stepping on the moon, Ruby shooting Oswald, or Janet Jackson’s breast winking at you—but nothing was beautiful. The box made beauty flinch. At best, you got an all-purpose picture-postcard look, the passport picture for the event.

But a change is in the making—call it home theater, if you like, if you still feel confident about that word “home.” It’s the grim huddle of people who’ve given up going to the movies for their fancy new screen—plasma or whatever. Few understand plasma, Blu-ray, digital, or HD, but the feeling is that at last television looks like something. It’s not exactly photographic; rather, it involves a digital or electronic sheen that seems to thrill young people. It’s not always lifelike, and sometimes it is close to an image that was once deemed in need of correction. Often it’s arty, but sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes the image is a place to be—as in Murnau, Ophuls, Ozu, or Antonioni. So there’s a reason to be turning on beyond the need for company, or presence, or room tone (the term sound recordists use to signify background texture). That’s where Red Riding casts its spell.

We have found ourselves in a culture of TV series and elaborate DVDs where some “lost” movies are unpeeled before our eyes. And the eyes do have it. When The Sopranos ended, it was not with an emphatic story point, a wow! (like Tony being an FBI plant or a papal delegate), but a delicacy of mise-en-scène that had to be seen over and over again. Of course, that doesn’t apply to all TV, and it never will, but there are series that are works of visual conjuring just as some old movies now enter a Borgesian library of variants. Their pursuit tends to be meditative, solitary, and unnerving. It resembles reading.

So Red Riding is a secretive modern novel meant to be exhumed on your own; when you go to let the dog out afterward you hear the wind moaning and you feel nervous of the dark in your own yard. You don’t follow or master this film, yet it’s alluring enough to keep you at attention. Torture people call that fear of the fear. You can’t like it, because the life it shows is forsaken and mean-spirited. But the looking is overwhelming. The abiding feeling as it unwinds, as you strain forward to discern details, is “I have to see this.” On the new screens that we are buying, as big as CinemaScope windows, it looks like a view we can hardly stomach. In its edgy beauty and grisly hesitation, Red Riding is a new kind of television—it is like somber music played at home and alone.

This Issue

January 14, 2010