Sunday, 8 March 2009

Red Riding

I was expecting big things of Red Riding after a week of laudatory reviews, and Part one was certainly a strange and grim fever dream of a film. It was technically brilliant in every department, not least the art design and cinematography, which gave it a wonderfully beige quality that eerily evoked old photos of the ‘70‘s. Unfortunately, it was shot with a strange detachment that made it hard to really engage with any of the characters. For all the fantastic actors featured, none of them seemed to have much to do.

The story was basically Chinatown set in West Yorkshire, with the ending of Taxi Driver tagged on, and this was the biggest problem - I just didn’t believe it. Bent coppers and dodgy property developers are a staple of 70’s drama, but these were just so damn evil it stretched credibility. Sean Bean was great as the smug, corrupt, racist, and (it’s very strongly implied) child murdering Property Developer. He‘s certainly a contender for villain of the year: He gets the police to torture and murder journalists, and to gleefully cover up his killing of women and children. Police violence and corruption was undeniably terrible and endemic in the seventies, but this sort of conspiracy is more at home in James Ellroy’s 1940’s LA than Yorkshire in the year of our Lord 1974.

The central case was very obviously inspired in part by the murder of Lesley Molseed and the false conviction Stephan Kisko, whose substitute is here presented as so obviously incapable of murder that only a conspiracy could explain everyone else believing his guilt. The truth was probably more prosaic - the police were under pressure to close the case, and willing to convince themselves and everyone else that the nearest available weirdo did it. It was about conviction rates, not conspiracy.

It’s the sort of institutional dysfunction that The Wire deals with brilliantly, and it‘s a tale that’s worth telling. Unfortunately, this story is told from the journalist’s point of view, so the investigation is seen here only from the outside.

David Fincher’s superb Zodiac is similar in many respects - telling the story of a famous crime from the 1970’s mainly from the point of view of a journalist, but Fincher sticks obsessively to the facts. In real life, Lesley Molseed wasn’t killed by an evil capitalist protected up by a corrupt establishment. She was murdered by a taxi driver, Ronald Castree, who was convicted based on DNA evidence in 2007.

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