'Red Riding': Noir Horror In Britain's Grim Gray North

Andrew Garfield

Story Of A Lifetime: Newspaper reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) returns to his hometown to find the local community in an uproar over the abductions of a number of young girls. Phil Fisk/IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Fisk/IFC Films

Red Riding Trilogy:
1974, 1980, 1983

  • Directors: Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker
  • Genre: Noir
  • Running Time: 105, 96, 104 minutes

With: Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Andrew Garfield, Paddy Cosidine, David Morrissey

Not Rated

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NOTE: Contains language that may offend some audiences.

"It's gettin' dead murky, innit?" comments a copper in Red Riding: 1980, the middle — and best — installment in The Red Riding Trilogy. He's referring to a serial-killer case, but he might as well be speaking as an audience surrogate: This serpentine crime procedural, spanning 10 years, three films and multiple, overlapping plotlines, laughs at the expectations of viewers accustomed to Law and Order rhythms and scenes that slam shut. Here, closure is a reward offered to none but the dead.

But to say that Red Riding is about serial killings is like saying The Wire is about drug deals. Set in the gray, wind-swept area of northern England known as West Yorkshire, and based on a quartet of novels by David Peace (a Yorkshire native who has lived in Tokyo since 1994), the three chapters — 1974, 1980 and 1983 — evoke a time and a place of systemic corruption and claustrophobic brutality. Like Peace's novel The Damned Utd (filmed last year as The Damned United), the stories are fictions woven on a framework of grim reality: Margaret Thatcher's assault on the mining unions rumbles in the background, while the actual case of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter William Sutcliffe (eerily portrayed by Joseph Mawle), dominates the foreground. It's probably fair to say the Yorkshire Tourist Board wasn't too thrilled with the result.

Yet there's a terrible beauty to these films that compensates for, and perhaps arises from, their unbearable bleakness. Though each was assigned to a different director — Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited), James Marsh (Man on Wire) and Anand Tucker (Shopgirl), respectively — and shot in a different format (16mm, 35mm, digital), the final work is miraculously all of a piece. Sharing characters, themes and the echoes of events, the segments dovetail almost seamlessly; since there was no collaboration among the directors, the kudos for this fluidity goes to the actors (many of whom worked on all three films simultaneously) and to Tony Grisoni's screenplays, which capture the books' merciless nihilism in language so pungently authentic that American audiences may long for a glossary.

Andrew Garfield, Sean Bean i i

Shady Dealings: Dunford soon finds himself hot on the trail of the local serial killer, with all signs pointing to a sketchy local property developer (Sean Bean, right). IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption IFC Films
Andrew Garfield, Sean Bean

Shady Dealings: Dunford soon finds himself hot on the trail of the local serial killer, with all signs pointing to a sketchy local property developer (Sean Bean, right).

IFC Films

With a bit of patience, though, they won't be lost. A heady stew of pornography, prostitution, pedophilia and police brutality, the story opens in 1974 as Eddie Dunford (a terrific Andrew Garfield), a young newspaper reporter, returns home for his father's funeral to find a community traumatized by the Yorkshire Ripper and a seemingly unrelated series of child abductions. The trail leads to a shady property developer (Sean Bean), though the local police seem reluctant to follow it.

As Eddie becomes involved with the mother of one of the missing girls, he uncovers — and will eventually be destroyed by — an underworld of tortured suspects and backroom deals, a place where answers are glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, and the innocent understand there is no one to protect them.

By 1980, the Ripper has killed 12 women, and senior police officer Peter Hunter (a superb Paddy Considine) has been brought in from Manchester to review Yorkshire's inability to catch the killer. Haunted by flashbacks, tortured by a crumbling marriage and an on-the-job affair, and distrusted by the local cops, Hunter moves through the film like a lost soul. "How deep does the rot go?" he asks at one point, though the question won't be answered until 1983, when a troubled cop (David Morrissey) and a world-weary lawyer (Mark Addy) are ambushed by consciences they had forgotten they possessed.

Slithering backward, forward and sideways, the stories unfold beneath a clammy blanket of dread and a thematic obsession with power. And though the crimes themselves can seem cliched and overly reliant on religious symbolism, the dark poetry of the filmmaking holds our attention.

Recurring preoccupations — the legacies of parents, the uselessness of doing the right thing — undergird conversations in dank interrogation rooms and cheap council houses, where neighbors' voices bleed through dingy wallpaper and electric fireplaces offer fake warmth. Outside, the blasted moors and dishwater skies (what Jarrold has called Yorkshire's "psychogeography") lend the trilogy's seedy details a near-gothic majesty: It's somehow fitting that the identity of a killer is concealed in the ravings of a madwoman.

Dense with cigarette smoke and long-buried secrets, The Red Riding Trilogy is familiar noir territory landscaped in mythic regionalism. "To the North — where we do what we want" is the habitual toast in the cops' favorite pub, and they prove it at every narrative turn. And if 1983 shifts the mood slightly from the real to the surreal, we can forgive Anand Tucker his final, desperate stab at hopefulness: His destination may be ho-hum, but our journey has been magnificent.

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