The release of this film made me think of that phrase often used about weddings and funerals in Michael Winterbottom’s native Lancashire – “there was a lot said”. Unfortunately, most of what was said by general commentators in the media focused on the charge of misogyny and gratuitous violence which first arose at Sundance and has dogged the film ever since. The result is that some of the audience who might appreciate the film have chosen not to see it.
But is there anything worthwhile to say about the film as a film and an example of cinematic art? I wouldn’t argue that it is a particularly outstanding film, but it is a good example of the work of a significant team of filmmakers. I’m not going to focus specifically on the violence in the film – I was one of those viewers aware of what would happen, so I just covered my eyes and didn’t watch the two offending scenes when the most brutal moments came. I’m still not sure what I think about these scenes that I heard rather than saw, but I don’t think I missed anything since the brutality was signified very effectively through the sound effects. On the other hand, I’m not going to argue against the director’s decision to include them as part of his presentation of the narrative. Rona is going to offer her thoughts on this.
For anyone who hasn’t read about the plot of the film, The Killer Inside Me is a close adaptation of a crime novel by one of the most ‘hardboiled’ of American pulp writers, Jim Thompson. The title refers to a young sheriff’s deputy in a small Texas town who commits a series of murders – perhaps rationally to protect himself, perhaps not. As the title suggests, there is a mis-match between the young man’s outward demeanour and what is going on inside his head. This is a classic film noir narrative, set in the early 1950s (which in Hollywood marked the most vicious period of the noir crime film).
What makes the film interesting initially is that it is the work of one of the two most prolific and celebrated production teams in British Cinema – here tackling a completely American property for the first time (even if it is actually their third independent US production). Revolution Films, the company set up by producer Andrew Eaton and director Michael Winterbottom, has produced films at an astonishing rate since the mid 1990s with sixteen features (including one documentary) in sixteen years. Many of these films have featured at Cannes, Berlin, San Sebastian etc. winning a number of prizes. Only Ken Loach with Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty comes anywhere near this record. Yet Loach wins out because his films win bigger prizes and usually much bigger audiences. It’s a tribute to Andrew Eaton’s producer skills that Revolution’s lack of commercial success doesn’t seem to prevent them from financing the next production. Presumably there is enough income from ‘ancillary’ sales to balance the books.
I think that there are two reasons why Revolution Films don’t make it with audiences and with mainstream reviewers. The first is that Winterbottom’s choice of subject matter combined with rigorous aesthetic choices and narrative experiments results in films either dogged by controversy or lacking in immediate mainstream appeal. I offer you the film under discussion here alongside A Mighty Heart and 9 Songs on the one hand and films like Genova or Code 46 on the other. So, the films don’t hit big in the multiplex – but if they win festival prizes why don’t they work in the arthouses? Arthouse audiences are often quite conservative in the sense that they like to know what they are getting and Winterbottom confounds easy ideas about auteurs who make the same film over and over. Instead he makes melodramas, postmodern comedies, science fiction, romantic comedy, realist thrillers, westerns, literary adaptations – no film is like the last one and each is also likely to be stylistically different.
I ought to put my cards on the table. For me, Wonderland (UK 1999) was the best British film of the 1990s and The Claim (UK/Canada/France 2000) the most ambitious and best realised production of the past twenty years (well, you try adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge as a gold-rush western and shooting it in an Albertan winter). I’ve seen everything since 1994 apart from 9 Songs (UK 2004) and every one of the films has been interesting in different ways. Overall, however, I’d say that the more controversial and more ‘popular’ subjects have been less interesting than the left-field ones. And that is possibly my problem with The Killer Inside Me.
Winterbottom has said that his main aim was to create a ‘literal’ adaptation of the novel. I think he felt that Thompson had created a unique perspective on crime – from within the mind of the killer. Certainly the narrative is constructed with Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) at its centre and we only see other characters when they meet Lou. The two obvious points to make here are that Lou is the classic ‘unreliable narrator’ and we have no way of knowing how much of what we see is actually fantasy and secondly that this strategy allows Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran to argue that any charges of misogyny should be directed towards the fictional character (and, presumably, Jim Thompson). The creation of an unreliable narrator seems to me to be a valid artistic decision. The second point is more problematic. Thompson is a complex figure as a writer and according to his wife Alberta was . . . “a gentle sensitive man who loved animals and was of course a devoted husband and father” (quoted by Nick Kimberley in the introduction to a compendium of Thompson’s novels, Zomba Books, London 1983). He was writing at a specific moment in American popular culture and from a specific perspective as a struggling pulp writer. The question Winterbottom doesn’t seem to have answered is why adapt the novel now and why feign surprise that many will find the film offensive?
There is undoubtedly a case to be made against Revolution for simply seeking out controversial projects or perhaps creating a self-image such that for productions like A Mighty Heart Winterbottom seems like the most straightforward choice of director. It’s also worth noting that the previous Revolution Films production was the Red Riding Trilogy for Channel 4. Winterbottom wasn’t directly involved with that production as far as I know, but Andrew Eaton certainly was. But I don’t really want to explore Revolution’s history here. Instead I’ll focus on two issues: the aesthetics of the film and its status as film noir.
Winterbottom and aesthetic choices
What you get in a Michael Winterbottom film is something that looks and feels different. That’s obvious in the credit sequence of most of Revolution’s films and here there is some lovely use of typography with a strong country soundtrack. From then on, Winterbottom and his regular cinematographer Marcel Zyskind create very cold and clean images of the Texas oilfields (with some shooting in Oklahoma). If the intention was to look for a ‘Thompson aesthetic’ – the look of Hud, The Last Picture Show, Written on the Wind etc. The print I saw was digital which enhanced the feel of bleakness. Other than this textural quality, I didn’t notice the camerawork and colour that much – because the narrative is so gripping and the plot moves forward so quickly (as in the novel). (I can’t believe the IMDB posters who find the film ‘boring’ or who don’t see any ‘characterisation’.)
The textural feel is supported by the excellent costume design and casting choices. I thought at first that Joyce and Amy were just too beautiful for a small town prostitute and a schoolteacher, but the casting is consistent with Winterbottom’s aim to be ‘true’ to the novel.
Now that I’ve read the novel, I’m tempted to think more about the genre repertoires and themes which the film explores. The Killer Inside Me qualifies as noir in a number of ways. Thompson is clearly a pulp writer – though none of his novels were made into films at the time. He did work on film and TV scripts later in the 1950s and 1960s – but mostly in other genres. Perhaps his crime novels were considered too violent? Or perhaps they were too far ahead of popular taste?
The violence towards women features in several noirs of the period. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame is disfigured by scalding coffee deliberately thrown by Lee Marvin’s violent thug. In Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a young woman is tortured to death. In both films, however, the extreme violence is offscreen (see the clips below – the end of the Kiss Me Deadly intro):
The ‘narration’ of The Killer Inside Me is in some ways similar to that of the William Holden character in Sunset Boulevard, but the theme of the film looks forward to later films such as Psycho. Thompson’s writing style shares with Winterbottom’s directorial style in impatience with spelling everything out. Audiences have to work hard to put together the plot information, but there are plenty of clues. Lou Ford is insane (though US audiences seem to have missed this in many cases). His behaviour is influenced by childhood trauma and he entertains himself with his father’s medical books (the soundtrack also offers us Mahler, Richard Strauss and Donizetti alongside Western Swing to represent Lou’s two worlds). The only elements in the book that don’t appear in the movie (unless I’ve already forgotten them!) are a visit to Lou’s house from a quack psychiatrist and Lou’s use of prescription drugs to pep up his sexual performance. Both of these could be part of 40s/50s noir but the childhood trauma seems like a relatively new reason for the injection of violence into the doomed life of the male protagonist. In earlier noirs, the trauma is often associated with wartime experience. The novel reveals that part of the reason for Lou’s aggression towards the DA Howard Hendricks is that Lou is fed up with hearing about Hendricks’ war experience and the shrapnel lodged in his body. Lou himself is 29, so at the time of the main US recruitment of young men to fight in 1944 he would have been 21. Why didn’t he enlist? Why too is there no sense of the Korean War or the mounting anti-Communist hysteria? Is this again because we are inside the head of an insane man – someone with a sickness that blots out the rest of the world?
I suspect that a closer examination of The Killer Inside Me will prompt some more thoughts when the DVD becomes available. Meanwhile Winterbottom and Eaton have a new project – Promised Land, exploring the Stern Gang, the notorious Jewish guerilla group that murdered several British soldiers and police officers (as well as ordinary Palestinians and two major diplomats) in Palestine in the 1940s before the 1948 war. That won’t be controversial in the US will it?
There is some confusion over the broadcast formats of the the three Red Riding films, so I’ve taken a screen grab from each film and measured each image in terms of the pixel matrix to calculate the aspect ratio.
I calculated this image to be 1086 x 608 pixels on my computer screen (it’s scaled down here) and that equates to a screen ratio of 1.79:1. I may be one or two pixels out given the way I use the grabbing software, but no more than that, so I’m fairly confident that the Channel 4 image is 1.78:1 , i.e. the standard 16:9 of the modern widescreen TV set.
Using the same procedure on the grabs from 1980 and 1983, these came out as 1086 x 476, equating to a screen ratio of 2.28:1, which is slightly less than the cinema projection standard for CinemaScope of 2.35:1. I find this a bit strange. No doubt Channel 4 alienated a small proportion of viewers by showing the films in ‘Scope (especially given how murky 1980 becomes). But why compromise on 2.28? Why not 2:1 or the full 2.35? Is this in any way related to the use of Super 16 or the Red One digital camera? Or is this just Channel 4 ‘house style’? Of course, it could also be an issue to do with how the TV signal is broadcast or received. Mine came via cable, set to letterbox for my 4:3 TV set.
It is best first to make a clear distinction between the labyrinth and the maze. The former is a network of tunnels, chambers, or paths, either natural or man-made. The latter is a complex network of paths or passages, especially one with high hedges in a garden, designed to puzzle those walking through it. Commonly I think mazes refer to external networks, labyrinths to internal and usually subterranean networks.
The most famous labyrinth, which has acquired mythic status, was that designed by Daedulus for King Minos of Crete. The myth tells of a monster begatted by the union of Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, and a sacred bull. The half-human, half-bull offspring, the Minotaur, was imprisoned in the labyrinth. Meanwhile Minos’ son Androgeos was slain by the Athenians. Minos won the war that this provoked and then compelled the city to send seven young men and seven maidens to Crete every nine years, where they were fed to the Minotaur. Theseus, son of the Athenian king, killed the Minotaur by successfully penetrating the labyrinth with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne.
Labyrinths have become potent motifs of signifiers in cinema. They usually bring their dark associations with them, providing settings for danger, violence, murder and a frightening monster. One early example would be the German expressionist horror, Nosferatu . This is one of the earliest vampire films, and the castle of Count Orlok [Dracula] presents a dark, gloomy setting, where corridors and staircases lead peril and horror. Suitably, the coffin in which the vampire count rests is to be found below ground, in a cellar. This early example has set the tone for many of the subsequent genre films, with heroes and heroines descending into darkness and a ‘fate worse than death’.
Expressionism was a major influence on the Hollywood film noir cycle, where labyrinthine plots took the protagonists and the audience into a dark and dangerous world of chaos. A classic example made in the UK, The Third Man, has a potent labyrinth. The film’s villain Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is finally hunted down in the sewers of the city of Vienna. The protagonist, Holly Martin (Joseph Cotton) tracks him down, through a series of tunnels, dark and running with the waste of the city. Their final confrontation is an apt reversal of their earlier meeting in the film, where Harry and Holly surveyed the world from the height of a Ferris Wheel.
Monster movies, whether terrestrial or alien, frequently contain a labyrinth. In Them (1954) giant radioactive ants move out of their anthill networks. By the climax of the film they are being hunted down in the storm drains of Los Angeles. The final peril is the destruction of a new Queen deep in the network.
More recently we have seen the development of the serial killer cycle, whose combination of film noir style with a psychotic killer provides the most frightening modern monster. An early example, M (1930) has the child killer hunted down in an apartment store. The searchers [other criminals] comb the whole set of rooms and corridors before tracking him down in a dark storeroom. In Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) Lila Crane searches the old house at the motel, and finally discovers the monster in the basement. Clause Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1969) features a labyrinth cave with drawings by the pre-historic Cro-Magnon man: which the film develops as an association to Popaul, the butcher and killer of the title. In Silence of the Lambs Clarissa Starling has to visit Hannibal Lector. She finds him in a cell deep inside the prison, at the end of a dark, dirty basement corridor. And when she finally tracks down the actual killer he also hides in a dark and subterranean network.
Many of these serial killers/monsters hark back to the earliest example on Crete. Sexual aberrations are common. The killers devour the young and innocent. Most commonly the hunter/investigator male, and a female helper occurs on occasions. And the idea of punishment for usurping authority frequently reappears. Se7en  is a classic example of the genre that presents this last aspect. John Doe resides in a lair that is all in black. And he recites the ‘sins’ for which his victims suffer, working through the seven most grievous. At the climax of the film he kills the innocent wife and unborn child of detective Mills, and fuels wrath!
This long-running motif has returned powerfully to the screen in Channel 4’s recent adaptation of the Dave Peace quartet of novels, Red Riding. The novels mix recorded events with fictionalised characters and crimes over a period of nine years. [In fact only three of the novels were dramatised; a friend who has read the quartet found the plot of the second, 1977, indecipherable]. The three stories in C4’s Red Riding offer a world of chaos, where crime and corruption are rife and where innocence is sacrificed. They do this by appropriating many of the techniques of modern US film and television noir. David Peace, in an online profile, listed Dante as a major influence. And Dante’s Inferno is a key reference in Se7en, another work singled out by Peace.
The films utilise dark gloomy lighting, dramatic and restless camera work, and muddy soundtracks, with dialogue that is frequently difficult to follow. And they rely on plotting which constructs a narrative labyrinth for the viewers, shot through with ambiguities, puzzles, teasers and unexplained events or motivations. There was one scriptwriter for all three films, Tony Grisoni, though each feature had a different director. A common narrative is maintained by the settings and by recurring characters who re-appear as the dramas move from one period to another. And most notably the narrative only offers an overall though tentative meaning at the conclusion of the third feature.
Red Riding adds another myth to that of the labyrinth and the monster: a fetish with swans. This ties into the myth of the swan maiden, found in a variety of forms. A hero sees a flock of swans, and finds they are really a group of beautiful women bathing. He steals one of the dresses on the shore, and that maiden is unable to fly away. The hunter marries her, but at some point his wife finds her original feathery dress and reverts to a swan and flies away.
The following contains plot SPOILERS.
In the Year of Our Lord 1974 opens the trilogy. The majority of the film appears to be an extended flashback by journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield). In full noir fashion the film opens with shots of a young girl with wings followed by that of Dunford holding a gun. The plot then fills in the events leading up to a shooting, though in an extremely fragmentary fashion. Eddie is following a story of child molestation and murder near Leeds. In the course of the film he becomes the lover of the mother, Paula (Rebecca Hall), of a missing young girl, Jeanette Garland. He meets property magnate John Dawson (Sean Bean). Paula lives on the Fitzwilliam Estate; Dawson has his own estate nearby. The settings are mainly south west of Leeds from Morley to Castleford, Wakefield and the above run-down estate near Pontefract. The latter becomes familiar, as do the six cooling towers visible en route from the road.
Dunford’s colleague and friend Barry Cannon (Anthony Flanagan) dies in a road accident. Eddie then he discovers that senior police are involved in corruption with Dawson and have ‘fitted up’ an innocent man for the child murders. One young girl found dead has been tortured and raped before murder. The torture includes sewing ‘swan’s wings’ to her. It is this connection that finally leads Dunford to realise that Dawson is the monster whose ‘private weakness’ is child molestation. Dawson’s house is designed in a swan-like outline. Barry comments (rewriting Balzac); ‘behind every great house there lies a great crime!’ And we later discover one room contains a hanging swan, (evidence of the abuse).
The dialogue has frequent references to swans and wings, though the connection to the plot is not usually clear. Later features return to this as well as references to other animals. The film also provides frequently visual set-ups that suggest labyrinths, in tunnels, corridors and alleyways. Dunford is assaulted by police in a multi-story car park. But the clearest parallel to a labyrinth is when Dunford is taking into custody after gate crashing Dawson’s reception. We find him in a blacked-out dungeon. When the lights go up it grim and damp: the basement below the Police HQ. The police torture Dunford, at one point introducing a line that will become familiar: “put your hands flat on the table.” And he is later dragged down a corridor into another dark room, a morgue in which lies the body of Paula. The trio of officer involved, Detective Superintendent Bill ‘Badger’ Molloy (Warren Clark), Sergeant Bob Craven (Sean Harris), and Police Constable Tommy Douglas (Tom Mooney) will re-appear in the subsequent dramas. In Red Riding it is these police who are the monsters. The complications of Paula’s death lead to the police stuffing a loaded gun in Dunford’s pocket and throwing him out a van with the words that re-appear again and again in the series: “This is the North, we do what we want!” Dunford convinced that Dawson has killed Paula searches his house and see the swan. He then finds and shoots Dawson. After which, and the end of the flashback, he dies in a suicidal crash with a police car.
The second drama is set in The Year of Our Lord 1980. It is the height of the Yorkshire Ripper hunt, whose 12th or 13th victim has just been discovered. The opening credits features stills of the victims and newsreel footage from the time. The key protagonist is Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine); a senior officer from the Manchester Force charged with examining the long running and so far, failed Ripper enquiry. He brings with him two assistants, Chief Superintendent John Nolan (Tony Pitts), and Detective Sergeant Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake).
Whilst Hunter starts to examine the Ripper investigation it gradually becomes apparent that this is not the primary focus of the film. Hunter has been here before. Five years earlier he investigated the shooting at The Karachi Club in Wakefield. This turns out to be the incident when Eddie Dunford shot John Dawson. But that was followed by further shootings, including Craven and Douglas. The investigation is premised on robbery and murder by an unknown gang: Dunford’s death listed as a road accident. Hunter’s investigation remained unfinished: one complication being a short-lived affair with Helen. The events of the past still haunt him, and feature in dreams and flashbacks. They also start to turn up in the background of the Ripper investigation.
Hunter’s liaison officer in Leeds is the now promoted Superintendent Bob Craven. And the office of Hunter and his team appears to be in the same basement as that where Dunford was tortured. The passage to the office passes the pound of the barking police dogs: summoning up tones of the mythic beasts that guarded Hades. As in the first feature we have scenes frequently set in passages and on stairs, now interiors rather than the exteriors of the earlier drama. Hunter finally receives evidence that the Karachi Club shootings were carried out by a police led by ‘Badger’ Molloy. The evidence is provided by BJ (Robert Sheehan), who we saw in 1974 as a source for Dunford and his journalist friend, Barry. Hunter and BJ meet in what seems like a monster’s lair: a disused garage in Preston where BJ claims that the ’13th’ victim of the Ripper died at the hands of Craven.
Hunter is already in trouble with the police establishment. He arranges to meet John Nolan in the basement office, and after Hunter has explained the new evidence Nolan tells him that Craven ‘is out of control’. We follow Hunter down a labyrinth of corridors and stairwells to a bare basement room, where lies Craven, bloody and shot. Nolan now executes the coup de grace on Hunter: backed up by his corrupt fellow policemen. The film ends, after footage of the captured Ripper, at the grave of Hunter in a Yorkshire cemetery.
Red Riding 3 opens with a flashback to 1974. At the wedding of Bill Molloy’s daughter a group of policemen gather for a tête-à-tête – there is Molloy, Maurice Jobson (David Morrisey), Bob Craven, Tommy Douglas, Dick Alderman (Shaun Dooley) and Jim Prentice (Chris Walker). In the background is Chief Constable Harold Angus, who clearly is implicated in the corruption. They are joined by John Dawson. Once again the audience hear the now familiar line, ” To the North, where we do what we want.” The scene explains the conspiracy that lay behind events in the 1974.
The Year of Our Lord 1983 also returns to the central plot of 1974, missing children. We see stills of a young girl, Hazel Atkins, missing from the Morley area. As with the earlier case, that of Clare Kemplay, the investigation is lead by Detective Chief Superintendent Maurice Jobson [promoted from Detective Superintendent], assisted by Detective Inspector Alderman. Jobson receives help from a medium, Mandy Wymer (Saskia Reeves). With nice irony, at one point she instructs him and Alderman to ‘put your hands on the table’. Later she leads him to remains that may be those of Jeanette Garland.
Jobson’s central role is shared with another character from earlier features, BJ. And a new protagonist, solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy), joins them. Jobson is haunted by memories of the earlier investigations and we see frequent flashbacks to that time. BJ also has memories of that period, as a victim. Piggott becomes involved at the request of the mother of Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), wrongly imprisoned for the earlier crimes. But Piggott also has memories from the past. Various characters at different times, including Myshkin, claim ‘you know, everybody knows!’
The style of the film is familiar, with a dark and drear mise en scène, disconcerting close-ups and jump cuts, and characters framed by doors, walls and passageways. We revisit haunted locations like the gypsy encampment, the run-down Fitzwilliam Estate and the disused garage in Preston. In the latter BJ unearths a shotgun: presumably a relic from the Karachi Club shooting. One flashback shows Molloy and Jobson interrogating Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), a minister seen in both 1974 and 1980. Once more a prisoner was told to ‘put your hands on the table’. However, Laws, whose white van was seen near the crime scenes, was given an alibi by John Dawson. It is clear that Molloy and Jobson realised that Laws and Dawson were probably guilty of the child murders. But the police corruption meant that Myshkin was ‘fitted up’ for the crimes. An enigmatic exchange between several policemen makes sense when related to the plot of the 1974: they set up Dunford to dispose of Dawson without wrecking their financial interests. The subsequent shootings were either punishments or covering up evidence: or both.
All three central characters of 1983 are caught in the past and guilt. Jobson broods over the corruption and cover-ups. His increasingly awkward questions and investigation lead to enforced early retirement. Piggott was bought up on the Fitzwilliam Estate, and his father was an ex-policeman. The father was also a member of a paedophile circle involving Laws and Dawson. A flashback offers glimpse of the abuse with the words, ‘Piggott is king today, be nice to Mr. Piggott.’ This is John Piggott’s flashback: hence his guilt. And BJ also has flashbacks with glimpses of abuse as he returns to avenge the past wrongs. The climax of the third film comes on The Fitzwilliam Estate: crosscutting between number 7, Law’s house, and an allotment on open ground above the estate.
BJ arrives at the house with his shotgun. Her confronts Laws but is unable to pull the trigger. As Laws prepares to mutilate or kill BJ Jobson shoots him: with another shotgun. [Also from the Karachi Club shooting?]. Meanwhile Piggott is investigating the allotment. He enters what appears to be a disused pigeon cote, full of feathers. Laws discovers Piggott and knock him down into the passage below the cote: returning to his house, [and death]. When Piggott awakens he explores the dark, subterranean labyrinth. And at the end of this Piggott find the missing girl, Hazel. As he emerges from the cellar to the waiting Jobson, shafts of light pierce the gloom, amid a ‘confetti’ of feathers. The writer, Tony Grisoni explained: “we might save one of the children. I just couldn’t have them all die. I wanted to be released from hell by the end.” (Interview in Sight & Sound, March 2009).
And indeed Piggott does carry Hazel off home on his shoulder. BJ also survives, and 1983 ends on him, ‘the one that got away’. However, as is frequently the case with film noir and serial killer films, the ending is hardly optimistic. In each of the three features a monster is slain: Dawson by Dunford: Craven by his colleagues: and Laws by Jobson. But the central monster, the focus of all the corruption and violence; whose victims outnumber the innocents saved; the Red Riding police mafia survive or at least go unpunished. Molloy and Jobson have both retired, but others remain, including the Chief Constable Angus. This would also seem to be in keeping with the original myth: for whilst Theseus kills the Minotaur, Minos, who was ultimately responsible, survived: though he came to a nasty end later. One sub-text of Red Riding would appear to be that the Police have acquired the prerogatives of ancient royalty, both the power and the invulnerability.
Notes: Revolution Films produced the three Red Riding films for Channel 4. It seems Channel is releasing the films abroad on 35mm. I believe there was one screening of the films in 35mm in Leeds.
A discussion of other serial killer films is to be found in Into the Labyrinth in the ITP Film Reader, 1996.
Following last Saturday’s event in which I discussed the Red Riding Trilogy alongside The Damned United as adaptations of the novels of David Peace, I’ve learned a few things from colleagues.
I always stress to students that some of the most useful analyses of films and and other media texts start with stating the obvious and then trying to work out its significance. The obvious point to make about these five novels that became four films is that each of them has a central male character (actually two characters in 1977 and 1983). There is no corresponding female character in any of the stories. All the female characters are wives in the backgrounds, lovers/casual partners of the central character, prostitutes or other women who are the victims of male violence. Even the two women who do actually work for a living other than selling their bodies are both defined more by their relationship with the male protagonist than by their professional work.
The majority of the characters in the stories are racist and misogynistic in their use of language. West Yorkshire is a place of almost unremitting gloom in a moral sense (and often in terms of the weather!). In three of the films, the main protagonist arrives in the county by road, peering through the driving rain. David Peace is a Yorkshire novelist, but he seems to have adopted that well-known Lancashire saying, “the only good thing that comes out of Yorkshire is the road to Lancashire”.
So, going into the hell that was West Yorkshire from 1974 to 1983, the male protagonist, a vulnerable and corrupted man, compromised often by his relationships with women, finds enough vestiges of decency or moral fibre to redeem himself in some way and to help to make the world a marginally better place. All these men seem to me to be lower middle-class, grammar school boys in the days before mass university entrance. They have jobs that are not (yet) affected by the industrial decline beginning to take place in the region. They are policemen, journalists, a solicitor, a football manager. Their strengths and weaknesses are associated with sex, violence, alcohol and football – a stereotypical mix of the qualities of masculinity in the North of England. And for these men to succeed, many women have to be sacrificed. (I’m not suggesting that Brian Clough was a violent or promiscuous man, in Peace’s fictionalised version he uses violent language and alcohol to counter his despair about the potential waste of his football talent.)
My conclusion from this ‘obvious’ observation is that David Peace is more likely to have fans who are young and male and attracted by the the ‘hardness’ of the writing. However, my event attracted an audience with a fairly equal proportion of men and women and the person who had the most experience of Peace’s writing was a young woman. I’m not sure what I make of this. I find the books very hard going partly because of the sheer brutality and misogyny of the language, but I realise that I shouldn’t assume that this will necessarily deter female readers.
One aspect of this that I do find interesting, however, is that the two male characters who have to themselves be sacrificed in their attempt to uncover the truth are the two who are in some ways more ‘feminised’/less brutal in their behaviour and who return to Yorkshire from ‘outside’, ‘tainted’ by their experience of living in the South or, nearly as bad, in Lancashire. For some cinema/TV fans, the actor Paddy Considine has been something of a hero figure after his roles in two Shane Meadows films, A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and also in Last Resort (1999) and My Summer of Love (2004) for Pawel Pawlikowski. In all these films, Considine is at times charming but then disturbing and sometimes violent. I think this led to expectations about his role in Red Riding 1980 in which he plays an Assistant Chief Constable from Lancashire who is recruited by the Home Office and the Police Inspectorate to find out what has been happening in the West Yorkshire force. Once over the shock of Considine as a senior police officer (aged 40 in the book – Considine was born in 1974) I thought he played the role very well, but there have been complaints that he was miscast, since he doesn’t act the ‘hard man’ and is instead emotionally ‘weak’. In fact he’s probably the least corrupt and most honest of all of Peace’s male protagonists, despite his infidelity. In a starry cast across the mini-series, Considine is perhaps the best known actor for an international audience.
For whatever reason, 1980 had the lowest audience figures on Channel 4 out of the three films (1.9 million, compared to 2.03 million for 1983 and 3.00 million for 1974). Personally, I thought James Marsh’s film was the most coherent and most focused of the three films and the most consistent in style. In the range of responses that I have seen it is often named as the best or the worst.
Several other ideas came up in our discussion. I introduced the concept of ‘British noir‘ by screening the opening to Get Carter (1971) in which Michael Caine travels North to Newcastle from London to attend his brother’s funeral. We then used our discussion of this well-known film in relation to the opening of Red Riding 1974. I confess that I hadn’t chosen Get Carter for any other reason than it was ‘to hand’ and it represented an interesting attempt to make a noirish crime film in the early 1970s. However, one of the audience pointed out that 1974 has a very similar opening – a young man returns to West Yorkshire from the South in order to attend his father’s funeral and to start work as a crime reporter on the Yorkshire Post. Like Michael Caine/Jack Carter he is dressed in more modern clothes and has developed a sophisticated swagger which makes him stand out in the newsroom, the press club bar and the family funeral. We also noted that the same cooling towers, often visible in Red Riding, were passed by Jack Carter’s train going North.
One of the reasons for showing Get Carter was also to make the point that it is now very difficult to recreate the landscape of the 1970s in the cities of the North of England. The docks and the cranes and often the vista of back-to-back houses has gone from Newcastle and Liverpool and Salford, along with the mills, the mines and the manufacturing plants and the Victorian town centre buildings. Control was a good example of a British film set in the 1970s that was unable to use ‘authentic’ locations, because they simply aren’t there any more. How much is this a factor in Red Riding‘s locations and its stylised, expressionistic camerawork and production design? I’m not sure, because in the three novels used Peace restricts himself to fairly generic locations/buildings in the area around Wakefield and the Leeds scenes can be kept inside the Post building, a police station etc. However, the restriction to interiors and fairly anonymous locations allows the expressionist presentation to create an overall sense of the ‘hell’ that is West Yorkshire. Locations in The Damned United are more problematic since Elland Road and the Baseball Ground, the homes in 1974 of Leeds United and Derby County, have been re-built and demolished respectively. Again the number of locations is restricted. Budgetary considerations also mean that Scarborough stands in for Brighton and Saddleworth for wherever the Cloughs had their house in the 1970s (I’m assuming Derby/Notts). (The novel of 1977 would also have caused problems since it has scenes in Bradford and Manchester.)
Overall, Peace creates a world of his own imagination that he presents as West Yorkshire in the 1970s. Although his novels are pitted with news events and appropriate pop songs on the radio, there is no attempt to represent the ‘real’ West Yorkshire of the period – in which as some local residents have pointed out, journalists and others were still dependent on buses rather than driving their own cars. This isn’t the ‘authenticity’ of costume drama, but it may in some way represent how people felt during the dreadful years of the Ripper and violence on the football terraces.
The TV ‘event’ of the year so far in the UK was arguably the broadcast by Channel 4 of the Red Riding mini-series, or perhaps the three-part ‘special’, in March. The media community of critics and industry commentators fell on these three films (around 100 minutes each) as the first evidence for several years that UK TV could match the ‘quality’ offerings of HBO and other American producers. The argument has been made that HBO could not exist in the UK as the subscription TV audience (for drama) is not large enough to merit sustained production of filmed series. Both Channel 4 and the BBC, the two publicly-owned channels have found themselves needing to find co-production partners in Canada, the US or Europe in order to fund major series.
Red Riding is a three film adaptation of four novels by David Peace, one of Granta magazine’s ‘Young British Novelists’ in 2003. Peace was 32 when his first novel was published in 1999 and 35 when the quartet was completed in 2002. Since then he has completed other novels such as The Damned United (2006). The three films are essentially ‘cinematic’, all directed by UK film directors (two in ‘Scope) and co-produced by Film 4 with Revolution Films (the company owned by producer Andrew Eaton and prolific British director Michael Winterbottom) and LipSync Productions with support from the Regional Screen Agency, Screen Yorkshire.
There seem to be mixed messages about the technical production credits, but it seems like the first two films were shot on 16mm (Super 16?) and the third using the Red One digital camera. All three were printed to 35mm for possible cinema releases outside the UK. All three have been screened in at least one cinema in Leeds (West Yorkshire being the location for the stories) and there are indications that the films will be released in the US and other territories. For those who can’t wait, the UK Region 2 DVD box for the trilogy has already been released.
So why all the fuss? First the Film 4/Revolution Films tie-up means that this was always going to be innovative/challenging etc. The three directors, Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker are all front-rank, experienced directors with Marsh of Man on Wire fame, being one of the most celebrated UK directors of recent years. Then there is the cast, one of the finest ever assembled for a UK production. Northern talent dominates UK drama production and half of it is on show here with Paddy Considine, David Morrissey, Warren Clarke, Mark Addy, Maxine Peake, Jim Carter, Sean Bean plus Peter Mullan, Rebecca Hall, Eddie Marsan, Sean Harris, Andrew Garfield etc. from points South and further North.
The novels were adapted by Tony Grisoni, who previously worked with Eaton and Winterbottom on In This World (2002), one of the great and unjustly neglected British films of recent years. He has also written for US independents such as Terry Gilliam on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tideland. Grisoni’s solution to the problem of budget restrictions (which meant three films rather than four) was to cut out the second book (1977) focusing on the infamous ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ investigation and to rework the other three, moving some events from one book story to another. The films carry the book titles, 1974, 1980 and 1983, but the final film includes elements of the first story in flashbacks – the whole thing is very confusing and reading the books simply adds more detail without necessarily explaining everything. Overall, Grisoni remained ‘faithful’ to the tone of the novels, whilst changing characters and story structures. As for the actual budget of the three films, I haven’t yet found it, but I think the cost was £2 million per film. This doesn’t sound much, but it’s about average for a 100/120 minute filmed TV drama and actually slightly more than the median budget for a UK feature film for theatrical release (where budgets have dropped alarmingly – or perhaps it’s a good thing?).
What’s it all about? That’s easy – it’s corrupt police power, brutality against prostitutes, criminal business dealings, naive journalists etc. David Peace is often described as a disciple of James Ellroy. It’s ‘Yorkshire noir‘ with Peace drawing on his childhood memories of the Ripper investigations and the sheer brutality of his home territory on the outskirts of Wakefield. He also draws on the literature of the area’s most famous literary figures, the 1960s writers Stan Barstow and David Storey.
For those outside the UK, it’s worth explaining the title. A ‘riding’ is old Norse for a ‘thirding’ – the Viking invaders dividing up the land into three. These became the North, East and West Ridings (there never was a South Riding, though this was used as a fictional district by the novelist Winifred Holtby). In 1974, local government in England was revised and the ridings disappeared. The largest and most populous, the ‘West Riding’, was split in two and two new ‘metropolitan counties’ (i.e. primarily urban areas) were created, known as South Yorkshire (Sheffield/Rotherham/Doncaster/Barnsley) and West Yorkshire (Bradford/Leeds/Wakefield/Huddersfield/Halifax). The Red Riding Trilogy is based in the new West Yorkshire of 1974 – when the police force was also a new separate authority. I confess that when I first heard the title, I leapt to the conclusion that it referred to the political hue of the region, i.e. ‘red’ socialism. But, it was Sheffield in South Yorkshire that was known in the 1970s as the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. Not that politics weren’t important in West Yorkshire, but Red Riding has other meanings and in the novels much is made of characters known as ‘the wolf’, ‘the owl’, ‘the badger’ and ‘the rat’, not to mention the swans. This suggests that we are in the territory of a very macabre fairy story about Little Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf.
So far, I’ve read one and a half of the novels and watched the TV series. I’ll report back when I’ve discussed the series at a public event coming up soon.
Most Friday nights I subject myself to a form of torture known as the Newsnight Review on BBC2 TV, a programme that rarely fails to leave me fuming. My main gripe is that the programme parades an array of cultural critics who collectively have around seven or eight minutes on four or five of the week’s new productions. Each of the critics tends to have a specific area of expertise, but they are required to speak on all of the items. Very occasionally there is someone with expertise in cinema, but films are regularly reviewed – usually the major Hollywood offering, but sometimes a European film (never anything from India, China, Africa etc.)
The idea of an educated liberal elite who are able to speak about all art forms is a British cultural tradition. There are some things to be said in favour of this approach, but mostly it creates problems. The critics on shows like these rarely have the space to say anything vaguely theoretical or ‘intellectual’ so discourse is at the level of genteel discussion. (The programme has in the last few years ditched the older and more curmudgeonly critics like Tom Paulin who could often be entertaining in his ignorance of popular culture as well as sharply analytical.) The real problem is that the British tradition is still mired in a worldview that recognises writers, fine artists and other high art practitioners, but pretty clueless about cinema and by extension filmed drama on television.
On last night’s show the four topics were an opera, Dr Atomic, the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery, Red Riding (a trilogy of Channel 4 films) and the ‘Eurothriller’, The International. The quartet of critics, Paul Morley (popular music and popular culture generally), Jeanette Winterson (novelist), Tom Service (classical music) and Tim Marlow (chair and art critic) referred to both Picasso and the opera’s composer John Adams, but when it came to the film and TV material, the references were only to the writer of the source novels for the television film and to the actors involved.
I haven’t seen either The International or Red Riding (which airs during the coming month), but I have got some sense of what they are about and what disappoints me is the refusal to see the medium of ‘filmed entertainment’ as worthy of proper coverage. It has long been the case that UK television has been discussed in terms of its writers and producers and virtually never in terms of its directors, cinematographers, designers, editors or any other creative personnel other than the actors. Red Riding is a major production based on a quartet of novels by Yorkshire-born (currently Tokyo domiciled) David Peace. Peace has received plenty of recent attention having developed as a cult crime writer over several years. His recent ‘novelisation’ of the legendary football manager Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 day reign at Leeds United has also been adapted as a feature film and The Damned United is released in a few weeks. So, I have no problem with a discussion of Red Riding in terms of an adaptation of Peace’s work. Yet the trilogy was written for television (melding four stories into three two-hour films) by Tony Grisoni, himself a relatively high profile figure in the British film industry after work with Michael Winterbottom and Terry Gilliam. The films were a co-production between Channel 4 and Revolution Films (the company owned by Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton) and together they represent a significant investment in UK filmmaking. Each of the films is directed by a significant UK director (Julian Jarrold, Anand Tucker and James Marsh) – surely this deserves some kind of comment? As it was, the critics mostly discussed whether the film (the first of the trilogy) was a faithful adaptation and whether this was proof that British television could match recent US TV drama (something of an obsession with UK television critics).
The same issue arises with The International. This was discussed in terms of a mainstream feature in which Clive Owen and Naomi Watts were underused in a film that clearly failed to be a Bond thriller or a Bourne adventure. Other than this, the main discussion was about the theme of corrupt bankers. In the current circumstances focus on corrupt bankers is understandable, but the big question is why nobody was interested in this as a Tom Tykwer film. Tykwer has been a controversial figure with plenty of gainsayers, but in Run, Lola Run (1998) he gave a much-needed boost to European filmmaking in the international market-place and he recently had a major European hit with Perfume (2006). His 2002 film, Heaven, from a script by Krzysztof Kieslowski and starring Cate Blanchett, was poorly received (unjustly in my opinion). Both Lola and Heaven sound like they were important references for The International yet the film was discussed as just another Hollywood thriller. Officially the film is a German/US co-production with some UK involvement. There are four US independents and three German companies involved. The film has been sold to Sony and Disney in terms of international distribution. Although it has some fans, the general US feeling is that it doesn’t work. OK, but wouldn’t it be more useful to discuss the difficulties of ‘international’ filmmaking in English for European directors – or perhaps, the difficulties that American audiences (and Europeans in love with Hollywood) have with these kinds of films. Whatever Tykwer’s successes or failures, he at least needs recognition as the director of this film.
Update: BBC reviewers on Radio 4’s Saturday Review programme recovered the corporation’s reputation a little by discussing Red Riding and mentioning both the screenwriter and director of the first film – perhaps they should take over Late Review?