I can’t decide whether Red Riding is the greatest movie trilogy since Satyajit Ray’s Apu films or simply the smoothest job of making three episodes fit together seamlessly while also working as standalone films. Who cares, though?
Screenwriter Tony Grisoni has made a shockingly coherent miniseries with the tone and texture of an epic poem. Credit the directors for much of this atmosphere: each amplifies and holds the more operatic notes. The cliché “intimate epic” fits perfectly here, especially with the first film, subtitled 1974. Its brooding intimacy and tactile interiority rival Lynn Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar.” But Morvern Callar was about one woman coping with her boyfriend’s suicide. “Red Riding” is about an entire region of England responding to a string of grisly femicides. Somewhat miraculous, then, that the series sustains a touch as delicate as its fragile victims, reeling witnesses and tormented heroes.
“1974” steps into—and rarely leaves—the shoes of a rookie crime reporter investigating serial killings in Yorkshire. It is the strongest of the trilogy because of this intense subjectivity. We follow mama’s-boy journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) through every bend and curve of his days, whether bullshitting with newsroom colleagues, bedding down his hot ex, taunting crooked cops, coaxing testimony from (and bedding down) a hot grieving mother (apparently, guys like Eddie get laid effortlessly), or enduring his own mother’s doting ways. This is emo noir.
It’s also a classic fit for the serial killer procedural canon alongside “Vengeance is Mine,” “Se7en,” “Memories of Murder,” and “Zodiac.” “1974” resembles the latter flick most, because it concerns an upstart in over his head who eventually takes center stage in the investigation. But like all the great ones, it’s less concerned with tracking a killer than with the moral tests his acts impose upon a harried, claustrophobic community.
The second film, “1980,” runs a very close second to “1974” in entertainment value and artistry. It focuses on a big city investigator descending upon the same small town to figure out why, to date, it has solved only one murder case related to the serial killer. Like Dunford, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is a manifestly decent guy facing some sharp moral dilemmas. For one thing, his ace detective, who happens to be his former mistress (Maxine Peake), is in love with him. Makes it kind of hard to concentrate on the volatile politics of an internal affairs investigation, not to mention going home to his unsuspecting wife.
In the flashiest but least inspired chapter, “1983,” sideline characters who earlier seemed present mostly to deliver exposition and plot points emerge as the most important ones across the series. There’s also a new arrival, a burned out lawyer (Mark Addy) who gets a shot at (aw, jeez) redemption by tying up the decade-long case of a town that mysteriously rewards its police department’s failures. The title “1983” is apt: that’s the year Return of the Jedi, another, similarly inflated but underwhelming trilogy closer debuted. Grisoni’s dialogue loses its punch, becoming prosaic and humorless. Director Anand Tucker wallows in the ponderous mood rather than modulating and offsetting it with other flavors. (Since I haven’t read the four David Peace novels these films are based on, I can’t tell you whether he deserves some of the blame.)
Not to spoil anything, but “Red Riding” isn’t for gorehounds, as none of the killer’s crimes happen before the camera. The most gratuitous element here is not blood but hardboiled detective movie cliches, which directors Julian Jarrold (“1974”) and James Marsh (“1980”) keep at bay with naturalistic performances across the board, but which “1983” Tucker too often serves up with a heavy swat.
Still, in full, “Red Riding” is a shapely, satisfying chronicle not of a killer on the loose but of how widespread corruption and complacency in the name of upward mobility can make any town a killer’s paradise. Rabid self-interest keeps almost everybody’s eye off the ball. (Era-specific politics weigh in mostly via radios and TV’s, which, in “1974,” tell us about a victorious miners’ strike, and in Thatcherized “1980,” remind us that Northern Ireland is buggin’ out.) This box set of despair damns the church, the state and big business (in the person of iconic heavy Sean Bean) with a surprising amount of tenderness and poetic fury.