While not exactly the happiest way to ring in the new year (cinematically speaking, at least; I've got a glass of champagne with me as I write this), I'm pleased to say that my last official viewing for the 2010 calendar year is a very good one. While I'm sure I could take a moment to speculate as to how watching a film that's the first in a trilogy is somehow thematically relevant to something in movies this year or even in my personal life, I won't because well, that's just cloying. Rather, let's get to the film I watched today to close out 2010:
Based on a series of horrifying true events in England, the Red Riding trilogy's first installment, directed by Julian Jarrold, begins in 1974. A young girl has vanished, the latest in a series of missing child cases. Journalist Eddie Dunford decides to investigate the disappearance, and in doing so unlocks an increasingly dark and sinister web of corruption in Britain's police force. Like 2007's excellent Zodiac, Red Riding is one of those detailed crime dramas that at times threatens to sink under the weight of the details, both known and unknown. But what makes this film different from Fincher's San Francisco-set tale is that we never see anything bad happen, at least, not to the victims. Dunford takes quite a beating in his quest to find the truth, but the film itself doesn't punctuate its main story with horrific side trips. And yet Jarrold's entry in the trilogy (based on David Peace's novel) is a steadily paced, yet engaging way to kick off what is sure to be an increasingly complex narrative.
While the performances are strong - Garfield is quietly sympathetic and Rebecca Hall continues her 2010 winning streak - Red Riding succeeds more in its craftsmanship. While it by no means rushes through the plot, the screenplay and the editing keep the scenes and story moving along at just the right pace to hold interest. We start, like Eddie, aloof and not terribly involved in the case of the disappearing girls, but little by little the film draws you in. Revelations are never sensationalized or turned into moments of high drama. Instead, Jarrold directs the flow of events with a calm, understated hand. His goal here isn't so much to dwell on the "oh the horror!" aspect of the crimes, but rather root us in the position of Dunford, a man slowly coming to terms with the fact that there's more to the vanished girls than a single predator.
This is beautifully echoed in the the film's greatest strength, Rob Hardy's brilliant cinematography. Hardy has a gift with framing, and makes even the most plain and ugly 70s architecture interesting to look at. More important though, is how often he uses limited focal range, sometimes leaving only a small portion of the frame sharp. Sometimes it's simply a stylistic choice, but in other scenes there's a nice complimentary feeling of Dunford's (and our) inability to see the whole picture. In what could have been a rather ordinarily shot film, Hardy's beautifully composed images lend this gritty story a sense of richness, without "softening" the ugliness.
Yet while the screenplay is generally strong, and is well handled by both director and actors, it occasionally throws in one too many details. A vaguely sketched out subplot involving the recent death of Eddie's father and his relationship with his mother don't entirely work, especially in one distracting and bizarrely edited scene that never clearly establishes whether it's a dream, hallucination, or reality. This issue, though, along with the film sometimes keeping us an inch too far out of the loop, seems relatively minor by the film's end. Like the rest of the film, the finale keeps a level head without reducing the impact, and the final sequence is a thing of beauty. And whether or not parts 2 and 3 live up to this first installment, Jarrold and crew can be proud that they've made a film that, while ambiguous at its end, still feels complete and satisfying.