The powerfully disturbing “Red Riding” trilogy will haunt you waking and sleeping, night and day. If you survive the watching of it, that is, which is no easy thing.
It’s not the five-hours-plus length of this trio of devastatingly bleak modern British noir films that’s daunting. Far from it. Strongly made by three different directors with three different crews but using scripts from the same writer and the same cast for its recurring characters, these films are put together with so much ability and skill that the time simply melts away.
Rather, the hard paradox of this project is that what makes these merciless films at times almost unbearable to watch also makes them frankly impossible to get out of your mind. Not only do they create a gritty, compelling world thick with the fetid air of venality, corruption and desperation, but they also periodically traffic in ghastly and horrific torture, sometimes shown, sometimes merely described, but always circling back to a series of sadistic, soul-destroying murders of women and little girls.
All this and more comes from a quartet of intense, chaotic novels by David Peace (“fictions torn from facts that illuminate the truth,” he says) that in turn were inspired by events surrounding northern England’s real-life Yorkshire Ripper murders.
While each book was initially supposed to get its own film, budget cuts at British TV giant Channel 4 meant that only three could be made. Each novel is named after a year, but when the film title comes up on-screen, the phrase “In the Year of Our Lord” is added, as if to ironically remind us that we are entering a world where godly behavior is going to be difficult to find.
Though the search for murderers is the engine of Tony Grisoni’s driving scripts, that’s not what the “Red Riding” films are about. With the meaning or even exactly what’s happening in specific moments often intentionally unclear, these are unsettling, multi-layered investigations of character and society, described by the screenwriter as akin to “Dickens on bad acid.” In this thoroughly corrupt society, no one is pure enough to cast the first stone, but the drive to end unspeakable evil is still a powerful one, even if it runs through fatally compromised individuals.
These intensely atmospheric pieces are set in Leeds and embedded root and branch in what the films present as the brutal culture of the North of England, where accents are hard to decipher, where the cold -- spiritual as well as physical -- gets in your bones and where the motto of the police is “This is the North, where we do what we want.” The “Red Riding” title comes from the Ridings, a trio of administrative areas in Yorkshire, with the addition of red likely calling attention to the violence of the murders and the allusion to the fairy tale, reminding us that young girls were involved.
The first part, “1974,” directed by Julian Jarrold, follows cocky and ambitious young Yorkshire Post crime reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) as he starts to suspect that the torture deaths of little girls over several years could be linked. His investigations lead him to surly chief detective Billy “The Badger” Molloy (Warren Clarke), powerful developer John Dawson ( Sean Bean), local vicar Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), mysterious rent boy BJ (Robert Sheehan) and the beautiful, haunted young widow Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall). But no good will come of it, no good at all.
Directed by James Marsh, the second part, “1980,” involves a second series of murders, the ghastly Ripper attacks on women. The Home Office, worried about the pace of the Yorkshire Police investigation, sends in a key operative from Manchester, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), to try to figure out what’s going on. He comes up against a resentful, resistant police culture, typified by the sadistic detective Bob Craven ( Sean Harris). “How deep does the rot go?” Hunter wonders. “Who stops it?”
Attempting to answer that question, the third part, Anand Tucker’s “1983,” follows two characters, solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy) and top cop Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), as they both are compelled against their better judgment and even their self-interest to staunch the flood of corruption, to attempt to get to the source of evil that always seems just out of reach.
Though there are differences in visual and directorial style in the three parts, on a first viewing at least they seem all of a piece, more united by themes, scripts and actors than divided by individual flourishes. The acting is exceptionally convincing and adds an air of verisimilitude. It’s remarkable to find out that Hall, almost unrecognizable as a North Country Marilyn Monroe type, came directly from Woody Allen’s fluffy “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” to this, which must have been the most mind-bending of transitions.
Though the sadism and torture laced throughout the “Red Riding” trilogy is only fitfully present, when it does arrive it is graphic and upsetting enough to make watching this exceptionally well-made series very much a devil’s bargain. You take the risk and hope the price you pay is worth it. Which, given the agonizing subject matter, is perhaps just as it should be.