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Red Riding Trilogy

Essential Viewing

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Three shots — a young girl with swan’s wings, a young man’s battered face, and a handgun falling from a bloody hand — open Red Riding: 1974 the first film in the Red Riding Trilogy that aired last year on British television.

Don’t let the Red Riding Trilogy’s origin dissuade you, however. As three interrelated films, each set in a different year in West Yorkshire, England, the Red Riding Trilogy is Anglo-noir at its grimmest, bleakest, and, ultimately, at its most compelling.

Officially titled In the Year of Our Lord: 1974, the first film centers on Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), the young man whose bruised face we see in the second shot. Back in West Yorkshire after a short-lived stint for a major newspaper in London, Dunford gets a trial run as a junior crime correspondent for The Yorkshire Post.

Dunford is a curious mix of contradictory personality traits. He’s brash, outspoken, and at least superficially, cynical, but that cynicism hides an idealism about his chosen profession and, sadly, a dangerous naiveté about what West Yorkshire’s powers that be will do if openly challenged.

Dunford attends a press conference held by the police. A young girl has disappeared. Digging into the archives (via old-school microfiche), Dunford discovers that other girls have disappeared over the last five or six years. His friend, Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan), suspects a conspiracy between the corrupt police, the greedy politicians, and powerful businessmen. Dunford refuses to believe Gannon, but Gannon’s mysterious death; his involvement with Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), the mother of one the victims; and an encounter with a powerful West Yorkshire businessman, John Dawson (Sean Bean), convinces him otherwise.

In the Year of Our Lord: 1980 is set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror. The Yorkshire Ripper murdered 12 women and assaulted at least two dozen more. With public in a panic, aided by media coverage, the Home Secretary decides to send in a so-called “super-squad” of detectives to take over the investigation. The super-squad’s leader, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), a well-respected Manchester detective, selects two other detectives, John Nolan (Tony Pitts), a colleague with ties to West Yorkshire, and Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), to join his team.

In re-examining case files, Hunter becomes convinced that a copycat killer murdered one of the victims, presumably to hide another crime. Hunter, however, has another reason for taking the case: an unsolved massacre at a nightclub six years earlier. Hunter’s investigation into the 13th victim’s past leads him, like Dunford six years earlier, close to the corrupt police officers, politicians, and businessmen who run West Yorkshire as a fiefdom. A line, uttered in the first film (and again in the third), states their crude philosophy, “It’s the North. We do what we want.”

The third and final film, In the Year of Our Lord: 1983, follows Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a corrupt detective who, in the first and second films, played a supporting background role. The disappearance of another young girl forces Jobson to revisit his past, including pivotal decisions that influenced events in the first and second films. Red Riding: 1983 splits the protagonist’s role among two other characters, John Piggott (Mark Addy), a low-end public solicitor, and BJ (Robert Sheehan), a male prostitute who, like Jobson, played a secondary role in the first two films, but who proves to be pivotal in the third.

In England, author David Peace, who wrote the novels that inspired the film, is recognized as a crime novelist on par with James Ellroy (White Jazz, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, The Black Dahlia), in part due to Ellroy’s obvious influences. Like Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, the Red Riding Trilogy novels share a common setting, a 10-year time span, overlapping characters and subplots, an unsparing approach to violence, morally compromised protagonists, and a chance, however improbable, for redemption.

A different director helmed each film in the Red Riding Trilogy. Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited, Becoming Jane, Kinky Boots) shot Red Riding: 1974 on 16mm film, giving the final result a murky, grainy look. Rooms are filled with diffused light and thick, blue cigarette smoke — the better to set the appropriate mood and atmosphere for the bleak, grim Anglo-noir to come.

James Marsh (Man on Wire, The King, The Team) shot Red Riding: 1980 on 35mm film, but used archival footage taken from the era to open and close the film. The colors are brighter, but the tone is no less bleak.

Anand Tucker (Leap Year, Shopgirl, Hilary & Jackie) shot Red Riding: 1983 on the Red One camera, giving the third and film a hyper-real style. The occasional ghosting that accompanies HD cameras here suggests Jobson’s past, returning to haunt him.

Despite the trilogy’s length (295 minutes), each film, taken on its own, feels short and, at times, underdeveloped, especially the romantic entanglements the central characters in each film pursue. Obvious plot compression probably led to the truncated subplots, leaving most of the female characters (and actresses) stranded in one-dimensional, supporting roles. That aside, however, the Red Riding Trilogy is better than anything you’ll find currently on network television, cable, or in your local multiplex this weekend.