“The Devil triumphs when good men do naught.”
A pall hangs over the entirety of the Red Riding Trilogy, so in hindsight it is perfectly fitting that the first film, In the Year of Our Lord 1974, begins with the image of a storm cloud. That the final film, In the Year of Our Lord 1983, ends with a brilliant shaft of light during a rare moment of redemption, feels rather improbable. The unremittingly dark and bleak films amass so much death, corruption, abuse and guilt that to have a happy ending feels patently false. Ungainly, convoluted and ceaselessly grim, the Red Riding Trilogy is an extremely impressive effort that ultimately cannot withstand the burden of its own harsh story.
To clarify: calling Red Riding convoluted is like calling The Lord of the Rings films imaginative. 1974 begins in Yorkshire with the news of a missing child, and hotshot (read: thoroughly untested) reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) finds that the abduction is similar to two unsolved cases dating back over five years. His editor wants him to go easy on the comparisons, and the police force seems intent on a very cut-and-dried investigation. One thing the trilogy proves repeatedly: no matter what the crime, there is always an ample group of scapegoats from which to choose.
Eddie is understandably driven, but woefully unprepared for what he will find. His father has just died and his colleague goes on endlessly about conspiracies amidst the local authorities. So when he begins to make connections between the police, a local contractor and the missing children, he quickly becomes a target for a long string of beatings at the hands of two thuggish officers.
The violence in Red Riding can be brutal, though it isn’t always graphic. And often the remains of violence make for startling imagery: a gypsy camp is burned to the ground, leaving a smoke-enshrouded field with women and children wandering around shells of makeshift homes; a reporter’s death is described while all we see is bloody glass on pavement; and when a missing girl’s body is viewed in a glaze of searchlights, wings stitched into her back, she looks like a porcelain doll.
By the time Eddie understands only a fraction of what is happening in Yorkshire, he’s already destined to an ugly end. As 1974 draws to a close, we really don’t know much more than when we started, or more to the point, not much that we can comprehend. Which prompts the question: should each film be able to stand on its own?
1974 feels like an unfinished mystery, and 1983 feels like one that’s been rushed and compressed. The middle segment, In the Year of Our Lord 1980, works better on its own because it doesn’t have to rely on the other years as much, primarily since the thrust of its story is a completely separate criminal investigation. 1980 focuses on Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), a Manchester detective sent North to investigate the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who has just claimed his thirteenth victim in almost four years. Hunter is met with polite venom and little help by local cops, including Bob Craven (24 Hour Party People‘s Sean Harris), the investigating officer who just happens to be one of Dunford’s previous tormentors. Hunter is assisted by two hand-picked detectives, stalwart John Nolan (Tony Pitts) and the reserved Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), with whom Hunter had an affair months before. Hunter, entrenched in the investigation and vague marital problems, chafes at Helen’s sudden insistence that he acknowledge their indiscretion.
The issues with women in Hunter’s life highlight a problem that repeats itself in Red Riding: romantic entanglements come at awkward times and with highly suspect or ill-advised partners. Dunford falls for the mother of one of the missing girls in 1974; Hunter’s relationship issues threaten to eclipse his investigation; and in 1983, Yorkshire superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) becomes involved with a medium that offers insights into that film’s case. Women, in general, don’t fare so well in author David Peace’s grim world.
Hunter, like Dunford, gets close to an answer but not without violent complications. In 1983, the story begins with a flashback to the events of 1974, filling in some of the blanks regarding the cancerous corruption within the Yorkshire force. The final film moves back and forth between similar flashbacks of Jobson’s work on the missing girl’s case and his present-day inability to continue hiding the crimes of his colleagues. Jobson has always looked uncertain throughout the trilogy, but in 1983 the years of misdeeds have taken their toll.
1983‘s efforts are split between Jobson and a solicitor named Piggott (Mark Addy) who has been hired by the mother of the mentally challenged man imprisoned for the child murders in 1974. It’s immediately clear to Piggott that the man was incapable of the crimes and forced to take the blame, setting him on a path that promises ugly truths that connect to his own family.
Red Riding never offers a character that isn’t somehow bruised or tormented. Many of the primaries in the films have just lost parents or children, or have been affected by the arrest and abuse of someone close. And no one escapes the events of the trilogy unscathed. While there isn’t a need for comic relief, per se, some inkling that the world is not completely dark and lurid would have been comforting. This almost doesn’t happen, and when it does, feels sudden and convenient.
The films are artistically similar despite three different directors (1974 by Julian Jarrold; 1980 by James Marsh; 1983 by Anand Tucker), and all three benefit from richly detailed production design. But the trilogy would have suffered greatly without its splendid, impressive cast. Considine and Morrissey are brilliant, keeping their respective character’s emotions reined in tightly, and Garfield makes Dunford’s recklessness seem utterly genuine. But some of the smaller roles deserve as much praise. Warren Clarke, who played the violent thug Dim in A Clockwork Orange thirty years ago, seethes with discontent as the ringleader of Yorkshire’s corrupt police force. Sean Bean brings bluster, confidence and machismo as a contractor with big ideas about how to improve the value of North England through a new thing “the Americans call a mall“. Eddie Marsan is too good for the limited role of a hack reporter in 1974. And Peter Mullan is magnificently understated in all three films as a local priest who has his own personal conflicts with the authorities.
An opera of mistrust, betrayal and mostly futile attempts at justice, the Red Riding Trilogy spreads a heavy, suffocating web that spreads out to dark, unthinkable places. Getting through it feels simultaneously victorious and tiring. But as it moves toward its resolution, you begin to wonder what’s the point? The strength of the films’ conviction does not fully compensate for the depths of its dire story, and that oppressive weight is difficult to endure.