March 1, 2010 / Filmwell
The most recent issue of the delightfully ad hoc monthly periodical The Believer is packed …
May 28, 2012
Reading is important and people don’t do it enough, again myself included. It does seem to me, holed up out here in my Tokyo bunker, that the affluent societies of the East and the West lack any form of direction or guidance, that we are simply spinning in a moral void. Where religion and government have either been banished or abdicated, business has stepped in. To bastardise Dylan, it would seem to me that one has to be moral to live outside God and we are plainly not. I still believe reading to be a redemption of sorts and that with e-mail and the Internet we are perhaps reading (and writing) more and watching less. Either way though, we’re still talking too much and listening too little. I don’t distinguish between religion and politics; just as everything is political, so it is religious. For me politics is the asking of questions, religion the receiving of answers. But we have known in our hearts the answers for almost two thousand years; that we chose to ignore those answers is the greatest crime. David Peace.
It would be difficult to find an author more different from Arthur Conan Doyle than David Peace. Doyle’s universe is tidy, orderly—the close attention to details that I’ve argued is the soul of the detective’s task is simplified by the fact that every stray detail has, in the end, an accessible meaning. Sherlock Holmes creates order. His word-of-deduction is a creative word, one that reassembles the seemingly fractured universe and asserts a deeper order in which Truth resides.
In contrast, the world of Peace’s novels—and of the Red Riding Trilogy—has no deeper order. Or, to be more correct, its deeper order is tentative, deferred. There is a truth to be found here, but it is less about re-establishing order and more about recognizing that disorder is the order of the day. It is, if you will, a literature (and a cinema) of protest, what David Dark might call an Apocalyptic “yes-and-no”: Yes, the world can be “as sad as it seems,” but no it must not be that way. Put another way (and here I’m echoing Katy Shaw’s discussion of Peace’s use of “faction”), the novels of David Peace rummage through the wreckage of the late-twentieth-century West, reading its history against the grain and trying to salvage some hope in a world where business has increasingly “stepped in.” In the Red Riding Quartet, the series of novels that are the source for the trilogy of movies I’m discussing today, the solution is explicitly religious:
‘How can you still […] believe?’ I shouted. ‘After all the things you’ve seen?’
‘It’s the things I’ve not seen,’ he said.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘During an eclipse there is no sun,’ he smiled, ‘Only darkness.’
‘The sun is still there,’ he said. ‘You just can’t see it.’
‘But in your heart you know the sun will shine again, don’t you?’
‘Faith,’ he whispered–
‘The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
I turned again to the Pieta. I turned back to the wounded Christ–
No other name. (1983)
The movies do not go this far they do offer a similar sort of hope. The key here, though, is this: that Peace ends his cycle, not with a triumph of the Good, but with a bad man in despair staring at the broken body of Christ, who in this case comes to be identified with the tortured and mutilated bodies of the young girls and women murdered by the various serial killers that dot Peace’s evocation of Thatcherite Yorkshire.
The Red Riding series—books and films—tells the story of police corruption and brutality in Yorkshire during the period of the Yorkshire Ripper. A workable plot summary is nearly impossible, but a few words should suffice to lay out the story:
In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (Julian Jarrold, 2009): Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a cocky young reporter who made a mess of his big break “down south” returns home to Yorkshire to take up the crime beat at a newspaper there. Shortly after he arrives, Dunford realizes that there is a connection between the recent murder of a young girl and several previous disappearances. As he investigates, Dunford discovers a web of conspiracy and rot that seems to encompass the local police and the building magnate John Dawson (Sean Bean). Stylistically the most interesting of the trilogy, this movie is also the densest, the most difficult to decipher.
In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (James Marsh, 2009): Yorkshire is gripped in fear as the Yorkshire Ripper terrorizes the local prostitutes. Amid allegations of police incompetence, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) arrives in Yorkshire to head up a “super squad” assigned to look in to the investigation. Like Dunford, Hunter quickly discovers that there is more going on than is at first apparent, leading him to ask “how far does the rot go?”
In the Year of Our Lord 1983 (Anand Tucker, 2009): Here we see how far the rot goes. Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a prominent figure in the Yorkshire police force, finds himself investigating the disappearance of a young girl—a disappearance that parallels so closely the murder in 1974 that he begins to question whether the real murderer was, in fact, captured. Or something like that. The truth is, this is the weakest of the trilogy because Jobson is an obstinately opaque character; why he takes the action he takes, and why he takes it now, is far from clear.
It should be apparent that none of these films can be taken in isolation. Each of them builds on the other, and in order to understand exactly what is going on—and even that may take several viewings—the viewer needs to be aware of the other films. This is not a weakness; indeed, it makes the entire trilogy far more cohesive than some Hollywood “trilogies” that could be named.
It should also be clear that these movies are relentlessly depressing. The rot goes all the way up to the highest levels of society and extends down even into the souls of the various protagonists: Eddie Dunford (though far more innocent than he is in the novel) is a self-righteous, self-centered young man whose final confrontation with the forces of evil has less to do with his hunger and thirst for righteousness and more to do with his own weakness as a person. Peter Hunter follows a similar path. These detectives—for so I will call them, since they investigate—are not Sherlock Holmes. They are not especially acute. They fail to bring, or even to discern, order in the disorder around them.
But does that make this series an example of darkness-for-the-sake-of-darkness? I think not, but it is difficult to say why. Certainly not because of the revised ending offered by the filmic adaptations, in which the fates of several characters are changed (and de-religionated). But the truth is, there is something no less prophetic in the work of the Trilogy than there is in more traditional works of detective fiction.
An example: in Murder by Decree, Sherlock Holmes discovers that the murders of his Ripper are the result of manipulation at high levels of government. That is, he discovers that the Order presented to him is not in fact order, but a very specifically managed pattern of disorder (recall, again, the old joke: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean no one’s out to get you). By pushing at the gaps symbolized by the lost writing on the wall and similar clues, Holmes is able to expose—if only briefly—the constructed, the false sense of order and expose a far deeper truth.
As I have said, none of the protagonists here are Sherlock Holmes. Rather than consciously pushing, they find themselves confronting the false order almost unawares and without warning. They are men (all of Peace’s protagonists are male) who find themselves caught up in the system and crushed. In this, they come to be identified with the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper—that is, identified with the cast-off and destroyed.
Here’s the catch, though: this identification is redemptive. Not in the automatic sense of “making right” but in a far more difficult sense. The sufferings of these protagonists causes attention to fall on the despised and abused; it speaks out against the mechanism that would reduce them to pawns in much larger power-plays and reflects instead an intense awareness of the importance of every suffering soul. In this way, the corpse of the victim is elevated; it is no longer simply a cipher, simply an excuse to inaugurate the investigation. Instead, it becomes a witness to unseen forces, an example of individual life snuffed out to satisfy the ambitions of others (again, recall Murder by Decree).
I think that’s why Peace ends his cycle with a meditation on the suffering Christ. And though the films omit nearly all of Peace’s religious symbolism, there is still a strongly Apocalyptic flavor to the conclusion: celebrating “one that got away” can only involve an awareness of all those who didn’t get away. The Red Riding series is dense, dark, and far removed from the world presented in the Holmes stories. But it shares with them an essential concern: a desire to see past the constructed order and into something deeper—in this case, into the sufferings of those ignored by history.