Red Riding: 1983 (United Kingdom, 2009)

March 08, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Red Riding: 1983 Poster

Red Riding: 1983 brings the Red Riding trilogy to a close and, if the five-hour saga doesn't precisely conclude with a proverbial "bang," neither does it go out with a whimper. The third movie represents the middle ground between the promising-but-uneven Red Riding: 1974 and its sequel, the shocking and haunting Red Riding: 1980. This time around, there's less in the way of a stand-alone narrative as screenwriter Tony Grisoni, working from the novel by David Peace, stitches closed various plot holes. The finale isn't watertight and there's room for dissatisfaction (especially from those who prefer conventionally happy endings), but it provides a sense of closure and clears up a number of nagging questions left over from the previous two segments.

Red Riding: 1983 connects most strongly with Red Riding: 1974. The events from the middle movie are never explicitly referred to, although there's a solid sense of continuity in terms of characters, motivations, and setting. The production opens in 1974 and flashes back to that year frequently enough to warrant Sean Bean getting a mention in the opening credits. The roots of much of what occurs in 1983 were planted in 1974 - the year that the burgeoning corruption in the Yorkshire police force reached critical mass. We're treated to some ugly scenes of prisoner mistreatment: men whose hands are laid flat on a table and smashed by handcuffs and burned by cigarettes. Director Anand Tucker, like his predecessors, Julian Jarrold and James Marsh, does not shy from showing gruesome, disturbing images, although he stops short of what might be considered "torture porn."

It's 1983 in the town of Fitzwilliam and another little girl has gone missing, raising concerns of whether the man arrested for the abductions and killings in 1974 was the genuine culprit. Detective Inspector Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), who has been a semi-willing participant in some of the force's most disturbing activities over the last ten years, is suffering pangs of conscience and begins to look into the possibility that the convicted murderer is innocent. He also has grave misgivings about the guilt of the suspect apprehended for the new incident. Meanwhile, the imprisoned man has a new lawyer, John Piggot (Mark Addy), whose dogged persistence in following the facts identifies a troubling possibility - that not only may the real murderer still be free but the police may have let him go for reasons of expediency. It was, perhaps, more important to convict someone than it was to convict the right one.

The film's chief asset is Mark Addy, who continues the trend of each film introducing a new protagonist. John is a bit of a loser with low self esteem. His mother has recently died and he's trying to find something meaningful to do with his life. The best thing about him is his gallows sense of humor. One example: A girl in search of a fix comes to his house and starts looking around. She notices what appears to be a powdery substance in an urn. He comments, "Don't sniff that. It's my mother." John is full of lines like that - dark humor, but humor nonetheless. Up to this point, there hasn't been much levity of any kind in this series.

David Morrissey is given more to do here than in both of the previous films combined. He emerges from the background to claim a place in the foreground. We get a better sense of his character here than in the other movies. He's more complicit in what's going on than we previously expected but he is troubled by it. Morrissey's low-key approach is effective. Unfortunately, he's saddled with a romantic subplot involving a psychic that feels forced. I accepted neither the individual (portrayed by Michelle Dockery) nor the relationship.

Red Riding: 1983 expects viewers to have seen if not both previous films then at least the first one. The story loops around to the events of 1974 so often that it will make no sense to someone entering the Red Riding cycle for the first time. At least two of the characters who have made brief appearances in the other movies - the reverend Martin Laws (Peter Mullan) and the male hustler BJ (Robert Sheehan) - are provided with backstories and their relevance to events is explained. We learn more about the depth to which the corruption runs within the force - anyone expecting a housecleaning hasn't been paying attention to the other two movies. The motto of the police is: "This is the North. We do what we like." After the events of Red Riding: 1980, it's doubtful anyone is going to try to expose the pervasive decay. Such an endeavor would not be conducive to a long, happy life.

Tucker's vision of Leeds is the least grim of the three directors, but the movie's tone is still somber and there's plenty of neo-noir atmosphere. The ubiquitous power plant cooling towers make several appearances. One wonders if the picture would be less foreboding had it not been for the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Those stark images - six titanic structures looming in the distance - enhance the sense of disquiet that pervades the Red Riding series. They make Yorkshire seem more like an Eastern European country behind the Iron Curtain than a part of the U.K. during the same era. I was reminded of the artless, functional housing complex where the bulk of Kieslowski's Decalogue transpired - bleak, lifeless, depressing.

It may come as a surprise that the ending of Red Riding: 1983 adds a dose of hope to its brackish main course. Perhaps the message is that, no matter how corrupt a police force may be, some things turn out alright in the end, although that's not a statement with which either Eddie Dunford or Peter Hunter is likely to agree. Red Riding: 1983 provides a fitting conclusion to a whole that is, in some ways, greater than the sum of its parts. Red Riding is an effective crime thriller but it's an even more striking drama about the dark parts of the human soul and man's capacity for inhumanity to his fellows. Not cheerful material, to be sure, but memorable stuff... and this may not be the last we see of it. Ridley Scott has announced his intention to condense and re-make Red Riding as a major motion picture.

Red Riding: 1983 (United Kingdom, 2009)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2010-02-05
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1