review by Mark Pezzula
Directed by Julian Jarrold
Starring Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, David Morrissey
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (which I will refer to here on out as either just Red Riding or 1974) is the first in a trilogy of made for TV feature-length films that aired on the BBC in 2009 and were released theatrically in the US in 2010. The film, followed by Red Riding 1980 and 1983, tells the story of a young journalist drawn into the world of police and political corruption in Yorkshire England.
Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) is a cocky and brash writer for the Yorkshire Post, who's only goal is to break a huge story and possibly even solve the case of a series of little girls who have gone missing in the area. Like any noir, Dunford finds that the more he investigates the case and the closer he gets to the truth, the more dangerous life becomes. He befriends and eventually falls in love with one of the mothers of the missing girls (Rebecca Hall), and his emotional connection to her of course ups the stakes of not only his investigation, but of both of their lives and seemingly everyone around them as well.
If that description doesn't sound like anything new, that's because story wise, 1974 really isn't. But that doesn't mean it's not one hell of a great movie. Director Julian Jerrod has created a finely detailed world of shady characters that feels like it comes right from the era it depicts. It helps that the movie was shot on 16mm, so there's a rich and grainy look to the film that seems to capture the grime and filth that Dunford wades increasingly into. It also helps that the screenplay, written by Tony Grisondi, is practically perfect when it comes to delivering both character and story details and developments. There's a whole underworld of wheeling and dealing that we don't really see but get every bit a sense of, as Grisondi's characters speak fast and address each other in language that police and journalists would actually use, refusing to spoon feed the audience with information. It's a treat when dialogue this good is spoken by actors that match it, and the screenplay lets the mind fill in small gaps.
Andrew Garfield (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite young actors) simply disappears into the role of Eddie Dunford. He's overconfident when we first meet him, and follows the head between his legs more often than the one on his neck, but as he's drawn deeper into a world he was not prepared for, he suddenly has the drive of a seasoned newspaper writer, doggedly going after a story - life be damned. This drive turns into obsession when he meets Paula Garland (Hall), and eventually becomes vengeance in the last moments of the film. Along the way, Garfield sells every cocksure smile, and every seething-with-rage-moment. It's another great performance in what is sure to be a career full of them.
Rebecca Hall does nice work as the dame Eddie Falls for. With her sad eyes she portrays a broken woman on the edge almost too well. Paula has a beautiful and comforting presence, as Dunford finds out, and Hall magnificently portrays that. Sean Bean has a smaller role (running time wise, anyway) as ruthless land developer John Dawson, but is extremely imposing and dangerous in the role. He casts a huge presence over the film, even when the character is just mentioned by name. Throw in some great supporting work by Peter Mullan, David Morrissey, and Eddie Marsan (a character actor who is about due for a break-out role and a subsequent Oscar nomination), and 1974 becomes a piece to watch almost for the acting alone.
Thankfully the film is paced well enough by Jarrold and the aforementioned script holds our interest even when it becomes slightly predictable. Red Riding is a film that works immensely well because it's so finely crafted, well made, and acted. There's a level of detail and care put into these characters and scenes that really doesn't get injected into many modern films (mainstream, anyway) as it does here. There's a rich, multi-layered world to explore here, with interesting, off-beat, and fiery characters to get to know. And, for the action fans out there, you'll be happy to know that - although the film is no Michael Bay blow-out - the final minutes of the film feature a cathartic explosion of violence that works within the context of the film and provides a soothing exhale after a long-held breath.
I don't know what the sequels (supposedly interconnected with this and each other) have in store for me, but I do know that Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 is master-class filmmaking, and one of the best films of the year.