Red Riding was first broadcast as a UK made-for-TV trilogy of movies. The three movies are cop dramas set in Yorkshire in northern England. A “riding” is a governmental administrative unit, like a county. There is no riding called “Red” in Yorkshire in real life; it’s a fictitious name or nickname.
Each film is set in a different year in the past, and shot subtly differently to reflect the time period. I don’t just mean that the characters dress differently and have different hairstyles and such, but also that the type and quality of video and audio are intended to match what would have been used at the time.
The stories are fiction, but occasionally overlap with or are based on real events. I believe that’s most true of the middle one, which makes use of the Yorkshire Ripper case in its storyline.
Red Riding: 1974 is the first firm in the trilogy. It is the story of a young newspaper reporter investigating the case of three schoolgirls who disappeared over the course of several years.
The film—and the trilogy as a whole—has been critically praised, and I agree that in some respects Red Riding: 1974 seems well done, with a compelling and nuanced story, though I did find some elements of it not very plausible.
But unfortunately my understanding and enjoyment of the movie was hampered by the difficulty I had discerning what people were saying. The characters speak with a heavy accent, and if you’re not used to it, as I’m not, it can be hard to understand. I probably was able to make out about no more than 50%-60% of the dialogue.
The obvious result is that I missed a lot of this film. When I went back later and read the plot summary in Wikipedia I found that I’d probably done a little better than I expected, picking up maybe 80% of the main points of the plot. So it’s not like I was totally lost or I turned out to be completely wrong about what I thought I had seen. But even if in broad terms I could sort of follow the story, unfortunately a lot of the subtlety was lost to me.
This is not a simplistic movie with comic book villains and lots of things blowing up; it is an intelligent dialogue-driven drama with some psychological depth and mystery to it. So it’s the kind of movie where a certain facial expression, tone of voice, or subtle word choice may turn out to be an important clue. When you subtract 40% or more of the dialogue from a movie like that, it really matters.
As I’ll indicate, a lot of what I have to say about this movie is uncertain and speculative. Some of that may well reflect intentional ambiguity in the film, where it doesn’t spell everything out for you and tie up all the loose ends, but in many cases what I present as a maybe may in fact be a definite yes or a definite no based on what is explicitly said—it’s just that I don’t know everything that was explicitly said.
The reporter finds that the local police are not inclined to cooperate with his investigation into the child disappearances, and later are hostile to the point of physical violence against him. His superiors at his newspaper are none too encouraging either. He has a reporter friend and colleague who is working on a story or stories that at least overlaps with his own, who then is killed under mysterious circumstances.
As part of his investigation, he seeks to speak with the families of the missing girls, though in fact we only see him try to interview one of them in particular. This is the mother of one of the girls, whose husband committed suicide after their child’s disappearance.
She throws him out of her house for having the effrontery to bring up this traumatizing matter to her, and shortly thereafter they’re having mad passionate sex. Speaking of implausible…
But not only is it unrealistic, it also loses points with me for being an instance of possibly my all-time least favorite movie cliché. That’s the one where conventionally attractive young people who are going to end up in bed together first must exhibit antagonism toward each other or play hard to get, and then only after establishing that “I have such extraordinarily high dating market value that I can get away with reacting to a conventionally attractive young person like you by rejecting them, insulting them, losing my temper with them, and swearing up and down that I’m not attracted to them and under no circumstances would ever even consider sleeping with them,” is it safe for them to fuck each other silly.
By the way, if you imagine a woman old enough to have had a child about 12-15 years ago (her daughter was 8-10 years old when she disappeared a few years earlier), who has been through the horrible, emotionally devastating, trauma of having her child stolen from her and probably murdered and then having her husband commit suicide, what do you picture? A young, hot blonde with no sexual inhibitions who can completely lose herself in sex with a near-stranger (who, in her perception, was callous and disrespectful toward her in how he approached her regarding her tragic past) and completely fall for him? Yeah, me neither.
Meanwhile, a shady character becomes increasingly prominent in the story. He is a flamboyant, rich, real estate investor. Which I pretty much got from the movie, though I also had the sense he might be a police official of some kind. Consulting Wikipedia later though made it clearer that his ties to the police were solely informal.
Evidently he is some sort of corrupt businessman, and the police and other government officials are somehow in cahoots with him. Not only in the sense of bending or breaking the rules in his favor as far as his real estate deals, but apparently in covering up his connection with the child disappearances.
The body of one of the missing girls turns up at one of the properties he owns, with evidence that she was tortured and raped before being murdered. This increases the reporter’s interest in pursuing the story, while simultaneously increasing everyone else’s insistence that he not do so. The real estate investor guy meets with him and attempts to bribe him by giving him incriminating information that would be highly valuable to him as an investigative journalist. I don’t think it has to do with this case he’s pursuing, but instead with some completely unrelated matter—like, forget this story and I’ll give you what you need to make a name for yourself covering this other story—though I’m not positive of that.
I don’t know if enough information is given in the film for us to know the precise nature of the corrupt real estate guy’s connection to the child disappearances (and apparent murders), or if that’s left open. It’s one of the many things I’d be more confident of if I had been able to understand all the dialogue.
There’s also the matter of his connection with the victim’s mom who’s screwing the reporter. She admits to the reporter that he’s a “friend,” that he was a big help to her when her daughter disappeared, and that she continues to rely on him for support (for instance, going to him when the reporter greatly upset her the day they met).
It’s certainly odd that she’d associate with him and even seemingly be emotionally close to him, assuming she can see that there’s a good chance he’s either the murderer or has some connection to the murders. Because I missed so much of the dialogue, I’m unsure if we’re largely left to speculate about this, or if it’s more or less revealed what’s going on here.
I did pick up (I think) on one piece of dialogue that may be a clue. Asked how long she’s known him, she says, “All my life,” and in kind of a meaningful way, not just in a matter of fact way like he was some neutral friend of her family or something.
So what’s that supposed to mean? Did she have some kind of sexual experience with him as a child that somehow resulted in her falling in love with him in some rudimentary, bizarre way, and they’ve been connected ever since? Was she so damaged by it and so much under his power that decades later she cooperated in his taking her own daughter from her for sexual purposes? Did her husband find out that that, or something weird like that, was going on, and that’s what provoked his suicide?
This might all be absurd speculation that’s not even consistent with all the evidence in the film, it might be not speculation at all but in fact what’s pretty much stated or strongly implied in the film, or anything in between. I’d have to know the other 40% of the dialogue to judge.
There’s a particularly brutal torture scene in the movie that serves as a reminder that this was during the “dirty war” in Northern Ireland, where the British military and law enforcement resorted to such tactics against their enemies. At least that’s what it brought to mind for me.
Even with the hard-to-understand dialogue, Red Riding: 1974 is not remotely as incomprehensible as, say, Gomorrah. It’s a lot more like Blind Flight where I got the gist of what was going on, but would likely have gotten a lot more out of the film if I could have fully understood what everyone was saying.
I’m confident it’s no worse than an average movie of this genre, and I suspect it’s above that. It’s just hard for me to be sure of that, given the limitations of my ability to understand the dialogue.