Dir. Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker
(2010, Not Rated, 303 min)
★ ★

The Red Riding trilogy, consisting of three films spanning nine years of institutionalized corruption in Northern England, is like a David Fincher crime saga without the benefit of David Fincher. It’s as grim, chilly, and obsessive as Zodiac, but without the same creative discipline. Stylistically it’s overcooked, and its plot is a convoluted soup of absurd conspiracies and secrets; at one point, there’s a Cosa Nostra-style confab to announce the dastardly building of a shopping mall, and the conspirators raise their glasses for a toast: “To the North, where we do what we want!” In 2007, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg made Hot Fuzz, an inspired parody of police-movie clichés. Red Riding is what they were making fun of.

I like the trilogy better in theory than in execution. Its setup is promising: each film – set in 1974, 1980, and 1983, respectively – follows a different man as he is drawn into the depraved underworld of a small Yorkshire community, but they don’t realize they’re getting caught in the same web. And what a web! After each installment I fled to Wikipedia for a plot synopsis, because the more I watched, the less I understood. This is due in part to thick Yorkshire accents, for which subtitles would greatly benefit non-native ears. (Streaming the films on Netflix, as I did, affords no such option.) But I think it’s due at least as much to Tony Grisoni’s screenplay, which struggles to keep so many plates spinning that it doubles back on itself in a miasma of flashbacks and dangling story points. In the concluding film, we see one character, who we met in the previous two films, hovering in the background, supplying portentous voice-overs and not becoming a clear participant in the plot until the very end, when a revelation to end all revelations is supplied out of nowhere, supposedly clarifying the entire story but really only throwing it further into chaos.

Paddy Considine and Sean Harris

The first installment, In the Year of Our Lord 1974, is the weakest of the three. It stars a rather miscast Andrew Garfield as Eddie Dunford, a dogged young reporter for the Yorkshire Post who looks into the disappearances of three children. (Imagine Bob Woodward in the body of a Jonas brother.) He’s cocky and reckless, following leads and winding up at the doorstep of Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), the mother of one of the missing kids. He’s insensitive to her, but soon they begin an affair. Why? Because the screenplay says so. The romance is so abrupt that even the actors don’t seem to believe it. It’s a cliché tacked on to give Eddie an honorable reason to dig deeper; he’s not doing it for headlines, you see, but for love!

The more he pokes around, the farther the film wanders from its central plot. The missing children become an afterthought as the screenplay pursues land-development deals and doe-eyed lovers. After Eddie comes upon a corrupt businessman named John Dawson (Sean Bean), the film falls apart in hysterically overwrought sequences of torture, threats, and revenge that turn into self-parody. This installment was directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Kinky Boots), who here could have used a lesson in dramatic restraint.

The second film, In the Year of Our Lord 1980, is an improvement, though it too traffics in the most familiar of tropes. Eddie Dunford, the Reporter Who Got Too Close To The Case, is replaced by Peter Hunter, the Detective Who Gets Too Close To The Case. He’s played by Paddy Considine, who is better suited to this material (and, incidentally, had a co-starring role in Hot Fuzz), and the film is directed by James Marsh (Oscar-winner for the documentary Man on Wire), who is more relaxed behind the camera.

For good measure, Hunter is written into another common police-movie convention: the Cop Who Has An Affair With His Partner. If it were a male partner, that might at least have been novel, but it turns out to be the fetching Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), who we’re told is also one of the best detectives on the force. They’re sent to Yorkshire six years after the events of the first film, not to investigate the child disappearances – at this stage still an afterthought – but to take over the investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper, who has killed twelve women. (This storyline is inspired by a true investigation.) Like the plot of the first film, this investigation too trails off towards an anticlimax while the attention shifts to a single victim, who doesn’t match the Ripper’s MO and might in fact be connected to events from 1974.

Mark Addy, as John Piggott

Style isn’t a problem for the second film. Storytelling is. It takes us deeper into the conspiracy, but remains vague to the point of not showing us very much at all. (The screenplay is saving its choicest revelations for the final episode.) All the while Hunter goes through the obligatory motions of such films: being taken off the case, defying his superiors, and demanding answers from reluctant witnesses.

The final film, In the Year of Our Lord 1983, follows Mark Addy as John Piggott, the Lawyer Who Gets Too Close To The Case, though, to his credit, John approaches his work with a jaded skepticism that is refreshing after the previous films’ stalwart do-gooders. He reluctantly visits Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays, in the trilogy’s best performance), a mentally challenged man seen previously in the first film being railroaded for the presumed murder of the missing children. He’s clearly innocent, the kind of scapegoat easily singled out for his peculiarity and lacking the mental faculties to resist police coercion.

1983 follows a second, more peculiar storyline, involving Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), who appears throughout the trilogy but only becomes prominent in the last chapter. Here’s what’s peculiar: Jobson experiences pangs of conscience, but only after nearly a decade of complicity in torture, murder, and obstruction of justice in the grisly crimes described above. (This is not a spoiler; it’s clear as early as the first film that he’s involved in very bad things.) Why only now does he start wringing his hands over his moral responsibility and not, say, a dozen innocent victims ago?  We’re never told. Morrissey makes Jobson as sympathetic as one could possibly make a man whose behavior would shock a war crimes tribunal, but there’s no way to overlook his character’s cognitive dissonance. I suppose his position seems nuanced in comparison to the other villains of the piece, who are so wildly, extravagantly evil that a man like Jobson seems almost noble by comparison.

I’ll refrain from describing more of the plot or even naming other key characters, many of whom I’ve left out. The trilogy is based on novels by David Peace that I have not read, but in his adaptation Tony Grisoni seems to have paid studious attention to detail at the expense of narrative flow. The three directors – Jarrold, Marsh, and 1983’s Anand Tucker – vary in their execution but achieve a common effect of dreary solemnity and excessive visual intensity: a lot of slow-motion shots and playing with focus and angles that are generally less interesting than still shots of crime scenes or the simple but ominous Yorkshire landscapes, which give us the sense that just beneath the idyll is a powder keg.