Now a 305-minute triptych film, Red Riding originated in the novels of Ossett-bred David Peace, written in Tokyo and published between 1999 and 2002. Looking back without nostalgia to the Yorkshire of his youth, the books summoned what Brit critic Simon Reynolds once called the "sheer crapness of England in the late '70s," when "the U.K. [looked] like an Eastern Bloc country."
Peace's four Red Riding books, set between 1974 and 1983, tell four compact, overlapping narratives of crime and punishment — rarely of the guilty. Each glimpse of conspiracy comes with fresh torment for the investigator — cops, journalists, solicitors — until implosion seems inevitable. At the intersection of page-turning and interminable, Peace's doomster-lyric-sheet prose has a repetitive, drubbing quality that aspires to incantation and reads like water torture. Often described as "poetic," it's like what Trent Reznor might write with access to police photostats.
Invoking English historical memory through headlines, traumas, and sports, Peace's work has drawn the attention of movie folk. His miners'-strike novel, GB84, has a film in the offing; his football novel, The Damned Utd, opened theatrically last year (as The Damned United) not long after the Red Riding Trilogy aired on Channel 4, each of three episodes handled by a different noteworthy U.K. director and all adapted by screenwriter Tony Grisoni.
Julian Jarrold's 1974 concerns Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), who has moved home from the South for Dad's funeral and a job as a junior crime reporter. He starts to cover the disappearances of local girls, and decries something rotten in Yorkshire as his investigations don't jive with the case-closed conviction of a local halfwit (loosely inspired by the 1975 railroading of Stefan Kiszko).
Garfield's fresh face, not long intact, doesn't belong in these dismal climes, a wasteland of rain, synthetic fabric, industrial estates, underlit terraced houses with fake fireplaces, and Brutalist public buildings, all shot in gravelly Super-16. "This is the North. We do what we like," is the series catchphrase of sorts. The "We" are, per Peace's imposition of fairy-tale elements, the Big, Bad Wolves: lumpish bullies like Sean Bean's developer (in the first and last installment) or Warren Clarke's Chief Inspector Bill Malloy (in all three). Not so lucky are the little girls and pretty boys, like Robert Sheehan's BJ, a throughline in the series as the male prostitute who knows too much. Another refrain: the establishing shot of the village of Fitzwilliam, the crap town of crap towns, announced by nuclear cooling towers and the last layer of West Yorkshire hell.
1980, the best freestanding film by a wide margin, takes place during the last at-large days of Pete Sutcliffe who, as the Yorkshire Ripper, held northern England in suspense for five years and 13 murders. Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is a Manchester internal affairs man sent across the moors to review the thus-far failed search for the Ripper. A suspected Catholic, clean and clean-cut among corrupt shags, Hunter's many-times-over outsider status allows director James Marsh (Man on Wire) several face-offs between conceited, contained Considine and the resentful Yorkies — especially Sean Harris' human snarl of an inspector — in the gloomy guts of the station. (In a nice invention, Hunter's office is placed right next to the police dog kennels.) Composer Dickon Hinchliffe replays his wringing score from the Claire Denis film Trouble Every Day, and it sounds better than ever.
The Ripper's isolated operations interested Peace somewhat less than his own creations — hypocrite villains; remnants of a child's fear of adult conspiracy; a consortium of businessmen, cops, and clergy who implicate the entire system with their arbitrary assignment of guilt and their mutual cover-ups. (IFC perhaps hopes to replicate the popularity of Gomorrah, another endemic-corruption symphony-of-a-sick-city film.) Peace's second novel, 1977, which deals the most with Sutcliffe, was excised for lack of funds. And Grisoni's teleplays fold multiple characters together, marginalize some of the books' major characters, and further cloud an already murky narrative. The fact that the films hang together at the brink of incoherence is a credit to the assembled acting talent. Rebecca Hall and Maxine Peake deserve note, oases in this nasty, masculine world.
But any spell cast is diffused by weak clean-up man Anand Tucker's whiffed 1983, returning to Fitzwilliam and 1974's crime(s) in smeary digital video. Another missing child triggers flashbacks and David Morrissey's Maurice Jobson, a career copper mired in compromises, remembers his conscience while picking up Dunford and Hunter's loose threads of investigation. A bathetic conclusion previews what we can anticipate from Ridley Scott's announced American remake.