The three films of The Red Riding Trilogy take place "In the Year of Our Lord" 1974, 1980 and 1983, and take their titles from each respective year. But our Lord seems to have abandoned west Yorkshire in 1974, 1980 and 1983, and the towns of northern England resemble urban hellscapes the more closely you study them.
The Red Riding Trilogy originated as four novels by David Peace. Clearly a spiritual apprentice to James Ellroy, Peace writes in a comparably clipped, slangy prose style. The Red Riding books emulate Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, four self-contained but interconnected novels (including The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential), in which hard-boiled police fictions take place against the backdrop of famous crimes. Where Ellroy probes the seediest folds of Hollywood's underbelly, Peace indicts Yorkshire law enforcement as being little better than mobsters with badges.
Skipping Peace's book set in 1977, three filmmakers helmed a different adaptation of Red Riding's installments for England's Channel 4. Now released theatrically in the United States, The Red Riding Trilogy presents an edgy secret history of institutional evils so deeply entrenched, they're like ugly facts of human society.
1974 follows ambitious young crime reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), who writes a story about the disappearance of a young, red-coated girl. Eddie connects the case to similar vanishings in the area and hopes the big story could make his reputation; his editor reminds him to contain his pleasure at the tragedies. One grieving mother (Rebecca Hall of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) gives Eddie another lesson in sensitivity, and later has an unexpected affair with the journalist.
Director Julian Jarrold takes inspiration from 1970s paranoia thrillers like All the President's Men in emphasizing the character's isolation in the midst of dangerous mysteries. Eddie scoffs at conspiracy-minded colleague's wild theories about backroom deals and urban death squads, only to find out that his hometown is a sinkhole of corruption, over which a shopping-mall magnate (Sean Bean) rules like Lucifer over hell.
Despite Bean's hearty, alpha-male performance, the developer proves to be a predictable source of evil. Jarrold spends too much time on the leads' sexual tension and attractiveness, at the expense of character detail or period color. (The book better evokes the vibe of the era: "Rock and Roll Part 2" plays on a jukebox during a violent confrontation in a pub.) Nevertheless, when the local constabulary resorts to police state-tactics to shut Eddie up, 1974 takes a terrifying turn. At one point, Officer Craven (Sean Harris), a snapping attack dog of a cop, gestures up an expanse of rural highway and snarls, "This is the North! And we do what we want!"
Filmmaker James Marsh takes up 1980, and though he's best known for the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, he provides the trilogy's most powerful chapter. The film begins with a montage of real news accounts of the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, which provides the texture that its predecessor lacked. Paddy Considine plays Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter, assigned to investigate the local police's handling of the Ripper case. After the tyrannizing tactics of 1974, audiences can find satisfaction in seeing the brutal police force defensive and in disarray.
Peter and his team face hostility from the Yorkshire cops, particularly when they notice that one murder doesn't fit the pattern and points back to a police-sanctioned porn ring and a spectacular but unsolved crime that we witnessed in the previous film. Considine movingly conveys Peter's conflicts as an honest cop plagued with guilt over an extramarital tryst. Though he's more formidable than Eddie was, the opposition may be closer and more ruthless than he can imagine.
The Red Riding Trilogy takes advantage of its ability to show the same events from different characters' points of view, and turn minor roles in the first film into protagonists in the last one. Heroes seem in short supply in Anand Tucker's 1983, which finds a main character in Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a leader of the Yorkshire police force who's covered for its misdeeds for a decade. Maurice's long-dormant conscience reasserts itself when a girl goes missing with the same pattern of the 1974 disappearance. Morrissey manages to do almost no obvious, demonstrative acting, but communicates Maurice's guilt and uncertainty on the other side of his huge spectacles.
1983 introduces chubby, mild-mannered solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy), who learns that the official scapegoats for the crimes against the kids may be innocent. Addy's gentle performance and the film's slightly more upbeat attitude end the trilogy on a note of relief, although its tendency to flip from 1974 to 1983 can be confusing. In another odd note, Robert Sheehan plays the pivotal role of a young gay hustler in all three films, and even though nine years pass, he looks almost younger in the last film than he did in the first.
Tony Grisoni wrote all three films, yet each director provides a different look and tone. Perhaps inspired by the boozing, chain-smoking newspapermen, Jarrold cultivates a hazy, twilight atmosphere with piss-yellow lighting in bars and car parks. 1980 hums with adrenaline and seems to spend more time in the dead of night, with gleaming neon contrasting with rich shadows. 1983 offers the most actual daylight, as if dawn has finally broken, and also has a cleaner, almost dreamlike sheen.
The trilogy mounts an inquiry as to how much corruption compromised individuals can tolerate, and the answer can be depressingly high. The "Red Riding" of the title isn't just a fairy tale reference, since the term riding is comparable to "district" in Yorkshire. David Peace's riding runs red with blood, and the big bad wolves might be the very people who've sworn to serve and protect.