The vast, soggy county of Yorkshire in Northern England is ruggedly beautiful to look at, but you wouldn’t want to live there. And if that was already your take on the place, then the Red Riding Trilogy — a grand, rambling panorama of misery and cruelty in the form of a detective story — will harden your prejudice to stone.
Ostensibly a behind-the-scenes account of the investigation into a series of vicious sex crimes against young women and girls in the Seventies and Eighties, the three linked films — Red Riding: 1974 by Julian Jarrold, Red Riding: 1980 by James Marsh, and Red Riding: 1983 by Anand Tucker — achieve what some people like to call “epic sweep,” but it’s a very dismal sweep indeed. At some point in the proceedings, we cease to give a damn about who the actual “Yorkshire Ripper” is. The screen is so crowded with monsters, anyone will do. Nonetheless, this magnificent mess of a trilogy is a definite must-see.
David Peace, author of The Damned United, wrote Red Riding as a quartet of fictionalized, neo-noir novels based on the sensationalized real-life Yorkshire Ripper case. The property was acquired by Revolution Films and subsequently adapted by screenwriter Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland) into the present chronological trilogy, with each leg directed by a different filmmaker. To achieve the full effect, it helps to see the three films as close together as possible, in sequential order. (At the Shattuck, show times are conveniently staggered throughout the week. But if you’re intrepid and want to take in the entire trilogy in one day, be sure to set aside Sunday, February 28, or Thursday, March 4.)
Red Riding: 1974 tells us practically everything we need to know to get the ball rolling. Against a background of misty moors, the Pennine Hills, nuclear cooling towers, and weather-beaten Victorian-era brick row houses, ambitious young reporter Eddie Dunford of the Yorkshire Post (played by Andrew Garfield) follows his news instincts and begins investigating the kidnapping of young Clare Kemplay.
To Eddie, the Kemplay case resembles other recent disappearances and murders in West Yorkshire a little too closely for comfort. To his scoffing editor, Bill Hadley (John Henshaw), and the paper’s equally crotchety chief crime reporter, Jack Whitehead (Eddie Marsan, belching his lines), that’s old news, buried and forgotten. Besides, all this digging has the potential to upset the Post‘s working-class-male readership.
We hear variations on that theme throughout the trilogy. “Leave it alone.” “This is the North. We do what we want.” Thick Yorkshire accents notwithstanding, it’s easy to understand that something is rotten in Leeds, and that the rottenness has everything to do with the nakedly racist and misogynist attitudes of the region’s old-boy network — which includes the police, the news media, and the business establishment, the latter represented by commercial real estate developer John Dawson (Sean Bean), a closet kinkster. The closer Eddie Dunford gets to the connections between the Ripper murders and the local power pyramid, the more he gets beat up. Blame the gypos (Gypsies), paddies, and queers, but don’t ask too many questions.
Besides Dawson, jowly political fixer Bill “the Badger” Molloy (Warren Clarke), and detective Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), Eddie’s main opponents — by far the most memorably repugnant — are the constables in charge of breaking his knuckles and hanging him on meat hooks. The worst of these is Bob Craven (Sean Harris), a lanky, rat-faced sadist who practices his arts in all three installments. All that punishment evidently makes Eddie randy, as well as bruised. In between beatings and clandestine meetings with similarly doomed journo Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan), he finds time to have sex with Post colleague Kathryn Tyler (Michelle Dockery) as well as Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), the mother of a Ripper victim.
Quite a carpet of corruption. Novelist Peace was evidently inspired by the writing of James Ellroy, with its twisted, interlocking Los Angeles conspiracies. In an Ellroy fiction, the hink is wide-ranging, beyond the horizon. Certainly the old-boys’ vice squad/prostitution/pornography/naked little girls combination resounds with favorite Ellroy flavors. But Red Riding is stuck in the slow lane.
The bleak, filthy, post-industrial landscape and the dumpy cabal of cops, pols, and entrepreneurs in Red Riding give the Yorkshire rackets an ingrown feel, a plain stamp of provincialism that closes ranks and excludes all outsiders — poof reporters, the pathetic victims’ mothers in the slums, “Romans” (Catholic-baiting is a street-corner sport), and even do-gooder cops like Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), brought in from Manchester in 1980 to clean up the Ripper scandal with its unsolved cases.
Hunter, too, runs afoul of the North Country. The boys on the force hate him instinctively. Added to that, he has marital problems. Same thing with Detective Chief Superintendent Jobson, aka “the Owl,” the “weak sister” cop who steps to the forefront in 1983. The other 1983 protagonist, and one of the trilogy’s few outright heroes, is John Piggot (Mark Addy), a fat, sloppy lawyer from the depressed Fitzwilliam district who represents Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), a simple-minded neighborhood fellow wrongfully convicted of one of the murders. Jobson and Piggot have their doubts but only one of them has the courage to act.
All three films are filled with people either too corrupt or too scared to take even a step toward the truth. You get sick of looking at these sallow faces with their dead eyes, tired of hearing their accents, tired of their bad haircuts and their casual brutality. After the brisk nastiness of parts one and two, 1983 is a bit of a letdown. We’re disgusted and want to get it over with. But once it’s finished it lingers in the mind.
Addy, Bean, Peter Mullan (as Catholic priest and Fitzwilliam community organizer Martin Laws), nasty cop Harris, Hall, and especially Garfield (Eddie Dunford the newsman is our first and best tour guide) walk away with acting honors in the huge recurring cast. Of the three legs, the most accomplished is probably Marsh’s 1980. The director of Man on Wire and The King takes what should have been the trilogy’s weakest link and reaches for the stars — the sadness in Considine’s eyes as the overwhelmed Peter Hunter. He at least has the option of going home to Manchester (one way or another), away from this chilly bog of tortured souls. Everyone else, these forsaken sons of York, are trapped there forever.