Thursday, March 12, 2009 by Jack Kibble-White
Boasting pretty much every distinguished actor Britain has produced in the last twenty years (minus Michael Sheen and John Simms), and based on a well-regarded series of books by David Peace, the publicity, the previews and the very aesthetic of Red Riding boasts an offering headed straight for television’s top table.
However, episode one proved this journey might not be as straightforward as anticipated. Although it looked utterly beautiful, this was two hours of television that offered a muted colour palette, underplayed performances, a lot of violence, but not a gripping storyline. The deliberately languid pace may have been bold, but it also highlighted the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot going on.
Conversely, the second episode (or film as Channel 4 would have it) felt more substantial right from the off. Gone were the beautifully lit urban tableaux and deliberately naturalistic dialogue, and in their place came a relatively taut investigation into the West Yorkshire Police Force’s investigation into the Ripper murders.
Clearly, part of Red Riding’s structure is to stick resolutely with one character throughout the episode. Here it was Paddy Considine playing Peter Hunter, a principled senior police officer brought in to weed out police corruption. Thrust into a world where everyone is a suspect, this felt like familiar territory for television drama, and it was inevitable that at least one of Hunter’s lieutenants, handpicked for the job by the man himself, should turn out to be on the side of the bent coppers.
That wasn’t the only predictable path this episode walked. Hunter’s uneasy on-off relationship with fellow detective (Maxine Peake) was a familiar TV trope, albeit one that after the final episode has aired might prove to be necessary in order to bring Peter Mullen’s creepy clergy character – a figure that has lurked at the fringes of conspiracy in the first two episodes – back into the action. His role, and trying to discern exactly what it is, has so far been one of the more successful elements of Red Riding.
As this week’s film unfolded, the connections to the previous episode proved to be more substantial than suspected, in the process retrospectively contextualising those first two hours and repositioning them as a more useful use of air time than previously thought. Conversely, connections with the Yorkshire Ripper murders grew less important over the course of the second episode, until finally we were to learn that Hunter’s detective work wasn’t going to have any bearing at all on the eventual arrest of Peter Sutcliffe.
This perhaps was the film’s greatest flaw. Although the denouement, linking a supposed Ripper victim back to the bloody events at the climax of the previous episode, was satisfying in overall plot terms, it was rather overshadowed by the greater (and real-life) drama playing out elsewhere in the police station. The evocation of the Ripper murders at the beginning of the episode had been so effective, that as a viewer it became difficult to care as much about Peace’s constructed conspiracy theory when events from real history – events that had exerted a genuine impact on the lives of many of the viewers – were playing out in the background.
After four hours on our screens, you get a sense that Red Riding is still only just warming up. Week two was substantially better than week one, in part because it was more substantial. There seems to be a lot of pieces in place which should allow for the denouement to stretch back across the series and bring it all together. Perhaps by the end of this third episode we will have finally borne witness to a drama that can live up to all the praise prospectively heaped upon it.