America may have given the world The Sopranos and The Wire, but the British have been doing ambitious, long-arc television narratives for decades. And nobody on this side of the Atlantic in the post-Sopranos/Wire world has done anything like Red Riding (IFC DVD and Blu-ray). Based on a quartet of novels by David Peace and adapted into three feature-length films by Tony Grisoni for the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2009, Red Riding spans nearly a decade in telling its dark and desperate story of murder, secrets, corruption, and redemption in the grim northern county of Yorkshire. It’s venal but also mythic, a gritty investigative procedural that’s unafraid to carry its indictments higher, much less hint at the supernatural. And though it’s based in part on the real-life Yorkshire Ripper serial-murder case of the 1970s, the trilogy finds its most resonant and haunting evils elsewhere.
First installment In the Year of Our Lord 1974 shadows young reporter Eddie Dunford as he returns to his native Yorkshire after a not-entirely-successful sojourn in the more cosmopolitan South. (Dunford is played by Andrew Garfield, aka Tobey Maguire’s replacement in the Spider-Man franchise, and he’s a good choice if his performance here is any indication.) He immediately jumps on the hottest story in the county: the mysterious disappearances of several schoolgirls. Unimpressed by the get-along, go-along ways of the local journos and cops, he digs deep and starts to uncover secret land deals and stifled investigations, all obscured by red herrings and police interference. He also gets deep with Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), the lithe blond mom of one of the disappeared girls. He soon learns what a small place his home county is, and the unpleasant ways that, say, a powerful developer like John Dawson (Sean Bean) might be connected to Mutt and Jeff police goons Tommy Douglas (Tony Mooney) and Bob Craven (Sean Harris). Directed by Julian Jarrold, 1974 channels both the conspiracy thrillers of the ’70s and mid-period David Lynch noir as it builds to its feverish climax. In fact, it ends with such a bang that it’s hard to fathom at first where the series could go from there, even with everything Dunford uncovered.
When we next see Bob Craven in director James Marsh’s In the Year of Our Lord 1980, he’s out of uniform and wearing a tie and slacks. See, he’s been promoted, and the lawless law enforcers of Yorkshire are struggling to solve a new big case: a string of young women brutally raped and killed. London calls in Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), a detective from the outside who investigated the fallout from the events of the first film, to shadow the locals’ investigation. Hunter spends his off-hours torn between his wife (Lesley Sharp) back home and fellow detective Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), just floors away in his hotel. On duty, he becomes convinced that one of the murders attributed to the Ripper was, in fact, something else. And as we learned in 1974, the closer one gets to the truth in the Yorkshire of Red Riding, the closer the danger grows. It is simultaneously the most intimate film of the three and the one where the stakes are highest.
In the Year of Our Lord 1983 belongs to Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey). A quiet, bespectacled presence in the background of the first two films, Jobson is shaken out of his bureaucratic slipstream when another schoolgirl goes missing. He put mentally handicapped Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays) in prison for the disappearances back in ’74, and his buried conscience pricks him enough to reopen his own investigation. The thing is, he knows about the corruption and backroom violence—he’s part of them—but what he uncovers, with the help of psychic Mandy Wymer (Saskia Reeves) and the inadvertent assistance of sad-sack solicitor John Piggot (Mark Addy), brings the trilogy to its conclusion. Director Anand Tucker’s installment is the most explain-y and least seamless of the three, and the buttoned-up Jobson is a bit of a comedown as a protagonist, but the denouement comes as an undeniable relief after nearly five hours in a moral gray zone under the dour northern skies.
None of the above even touches on avuncular minister Martin Laws (Peter Mullan), or gay hustler BJ (Robert Sheehan), or what seems like dozens of other characters and incidents and images and themes and lines of dialogue that thread through and connect throughout the three films. As an expansively plotted mystery, Red Riding has its foibles, but as an evocation of a time and place it is uncanny, from the louche settings where the local power brokers celebrate their ill-gotten victories to the scabby housing projects where the girls disappear and turn up slaughtered. (You could also make a good drinking game out of shots of characters driving under those oppressively low clouds.) And though the trilogy is ostensibly about several series of murders, it’s the evil that takes place in police stations and banquet halls and ordinary homes that lingers long after.