Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Red Riding 1974 (UK)

By  · Published on February 4th, 2010

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…

the UK!

Note: Red Riding is a trilogy of films from the UK about a series of serial killings that terrorized Northern England from the late sixties on into the eighties. The movies are based on a quartet of books by David Peace and use the murders as a narrative thread that winds its way through the lives of people touched by the crimes including most notably the police and the press. Like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Red Riding is just as (if not more) interested in the dark machinations of the men surrounding the case as it is the mystery itself. Of particular note is the trilogy’s format… all three films are scripted by Tony Grisoni but are helmed by different directors and feature (mostly) different casts. The result is three separate movies (1974, 1980, and 1983), each with a unique look and feel, that work together to tell a tale of corruption, murder, and the many other evils that men do.

1974 opens the trilogy with the disappearance of a little girl. A young reporter named Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) thinks he sees a connection between the missing child and two previous girls who disappeared in the five years prior, and he hopes to make a name for himself by breaking the story. His investigation hits a series of stumbling blocks in the form of intentional misdirection by those with secrets to hide and a corrupt and cynical police force more interested in protecting the status quo than in doling out justice. Dunford is after professional gain to be sure, but he’s also a naive and idealistic lamb walking amongst the wolves. His ignorance and zeal lead him to ask the mother of one of the missing girls if she feels “the police could have done anything more to help you?” “Yeah, there was one thing,” she responds calmly. “They could have found my daughter.”

A fellow reporter tells him about a possible police brutality issue involving a local land developer (Sean Bean) and the gypsy encampment that stands in his way, but Dunford sees it as a non-starter compared to his Yorkshire Ripper story. “Never had the urge to deliver us from evil then?” his friend asks him. “No, never,” says Dunford. Those words will come back to haunt young Eddie as his own story soon places him at the mercy of those same questionable and extremely violent members of law enforcement. Each step he takes towards what he believes to be the truth leads to another encounter with the mad dogs in blue. But who if anyone is holding the other end of their leashes, and is there a connection to the missing girls?

1974 is neither an action film nor a thriller, but instead is a study of a time and a place fighting a constant battle between what’s right and what’s easy. Dunford isn’t necessarily interested in the former and plans on avoiding the latter. He looks around him and sees nothing but old men who’ve given up, and he’s concerned less with making a difference than he is with standing apart. Like the other two films in the Red Riding trilogy, 1974 finds this as one of a few central themes. Characters looking for a way to identify themselves as different than those around them. Characters trying too hard to satisfy both familial and societal authority figures. Characters who believe that if evil exists then surely heroes must as well.

If you’ve seen the sad but brilliant film Boy A than you already know that Garfield is a major talent. And if you haven’t seen it yet you should rectify that immediately (my review here). He has a spry and youthful look that not even rockin’ sideburns and scruff can hide, but he’s capable of showing more range and emotion than most actors of his generation. Dunford is not only the heart of the movie, but he’s also our eyes and ears into this dark and gritty world. Garfield transitions from cocky and innocent to defeated and tainted, and he does so wonderfully. It’s a painful transformation to watch, and not just because the character is repeatedly roughed up by the coppers. We see Dunford’s innocence seep from his wounds, and we know that his loss is mirrored by an entire community. The pain turns to shock, the shock to rage, the rage to…

Director Julian Jarrold isn’t particularly known for films that explored the darker side of life and death. His best known works include Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited, and Kinky Boots, so 1974 is quite the thematic turn. Jarrold nails it though and creates a worthy entry into the rarefied film noir genre. The seventies are present in every scene, but instead of being forced on the audience (don’t see The Lovely Bones) the decade becomes a character unto itself consisting of a perfect mesh of cinematography, soundtrack, wardrobe, and the omnipresent wafting of cigarette smoke.

As the first part of an intentional trilogy it’s understood that not every question will be answered, but does that mean 1974 can’t stand as its own film? Happily, the movie works pretty damn well as a single feature. The writing is sharp (even if the dialects are occasionally muddy), the acting is stellar across the board, and Jarrold succeeds brilliantly at immersing the viewer into the smoky and hazy world of a morally corrupt mid-seventies England. There’s a greater story arc to be continued throughout the two remaining films, but 1974 should satisfy fans of beautifully done noir, quality acting, and films that don’t feel compelled to spoon-feed or pander to the audience.

The Red Riding Trilogy is available on import DVD and is currently in limited theatrical release throughout the US.

The Upside: Garfield is fantastic; authentic feel; grim and fascinating in equal measure; works well enough as a standalone film

The Downside: More than a few plot threads left undone

Related Topics:

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.