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There is much to admire but little to enjoy in the Red Riding trilogy, a series of interlocking thrillers loosely based on the true story of an English serial killer who preyed on West Yorkshire women in the 1970s. Adapted for television from four David Peace novels, the films aired across the pond in 2009 and will be opening simultaneously as three separate admissions at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Consider the collective 305-minute procedural a pricey, slightly slicker Law & Order marathon.
Each of the films has a different director; all offer complete—if cryptic—stories of their own. But there’s payoff in seeing the series through. Brideshead Revisited’s Julian Jarrold steers Red Riding: 1974, a Zodiac-evoking look at the case from the perspective of fledgling reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield). When a girl disappears, Eddie recognizes links to previous abductions in the area and enlists the help of a colleague (Anthony Flanagan) to pursue some leads. While they’re distracted with the investigation, though, the girl’s body is found and Eddie’s editor takes him off the story for missing the scoop. Of course, that doesn’t stop him. Eddie continues to dig—because he cares. In exchange for his virtue, he gets harassed, beaten, and sees people close to him turn up dead.
Red Riding: 1980 is directed by James Marsh, who last year won an Oscar for his documentary Man on Wire. This second installment of the series is a bit more mysterious as it focuses on investigator Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) as he’s tasked with taking a fresh look at the case of the now-named Yorkshire Ripper. The team Peter assembles includes Helen Marshall (Maxine Peak), with whom he shares a romantic past, and is closely monitored by Bob Craven (Sean Harris), an irritable and weasly policeman who’s quick to shoot down Helen’s theory that there might be more than one killer. Whereas 1974’s plot largely focused on families and friends of the victims, here it’s more about the investigators—and corruption in the force. Tense interactions give the impression of subtext, but the characters’ back stories go largely unexplored. With its labyrinthine unraveling, Marsh’s film will delight viewers who like puzzles; others will be happy enough to take its sensational conclusion at face value.
Anand Tucker’s Red Riding: 1983 answers the previous films’ tangles—sort of. Tucker, doing a 180 from his earlier work with comedies such as Shopgirl and Leap Year, offers the most unsettling installment of this fundamentally horrific series. An unsuccessful but good-hearted lawyer (Mark Addy) provides the viewpoint here as he appeals the case of a mentally challenged young man (Daniel Mays, one of the series’ standouts) who has been coerced into pleading guilty to all the unsolved murders. The director doesn’t shy away from stomach-churning sights such as photos of one of the dead girls or suspects being tortured. 1983 spins an even more complicated web, especially in its flashbacks to both predecessors.
The Red Riding trilogy is not an easy sit, less for its running time than for its gruesome subject matter. (Peter Jackson, who candy-coated a girl’s rape and murder in The Lovely Bones, would not approve.) The three films share a screenwriter (Tony Grisoni), at least one character with unquestionable integrity, and a creepiness whose intensity ranges from vague to startling. Marsh’s is the least stylized of the three, but all have their share of grainy footage, hallucinations and flashbacks, and interesting tricks with focus and reflective surfaces. The acting, from the nearly-A-listers to no-names, is excellent throughout.
Like any thriller, however, Red Riding may collapse if examined too closely. Your head will spin with all the names and characters thrown at you—even just within each installment—and it’s easy to get lost while trying to remember how everyone relates. (Not helping matters is the thickly accented and quickly bandied dialogue, which at times is so mumbly you’ll wish for subtitles.) The most prominent knock against the series is its bleakness. There’s not an ounce of levity throughout, the tone circling only between dreary, ugly, and heinous. Mystery lovers may be fine with steeping themselves in such depravity for five and a half hours; there are, after all, a few good guys. In 1983, the lawyer speaks a line—truer than anyone’s deductions or confession—that may as well be addressed to the audience: “I’m sorry. This is miserable stuff.”