The Red Riding trilogy, a three-part crime thriller that aired as a television series in Britain and is now being released in the United States both theatrically and with IFC On Demand, is so sprawling that it takes a full paragraph just to describe its provenance. All three parts were adapted by Tony Grisoni from a series of novels by David Peace about the Yorkshire Ripper case—a string of murders that took place in Northern England over a 10-year period. The first segment, set in 1974, is directed by Julian Jarrold ( Becoming Jane); the second, set in 1980, by James Marsh ( Man on Wire); and the third, set in 1983, by Anand Tucker ( Shopgirl).
There are a lot of visible influences in Red Riding. Like The Wire, it’s a long-form study of institutional corruption and the way mediocrity and venality will always rise to the top. Like Prime Suspect, it’s a smart procedural soap opera that also offers a glimpse into the lives of the British underclass. And like The Godfather, it’s a sweeping multigenerational epic about chickens coming home to roost. A churl might point out that everything noteworthy about Red Riding derives from somewhere else. It borrows its grainy look from ‘70s thrillers and its mood of fateful, poetic gloom from a long tradition of British noir. But it’s not hard to forgive this series its lack of innovation, because it manages, for long stretches at least, to be something few serial-killer dramas ever are: really, really good.
Each episode of the Red Riding triptych is a stand-alone piece with its own protagonist. In the first, an ambitious young reporter named Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) investigates the death of Clare Kemplay, a little girl who goes missing and turns up dead in a dumpster, in circumstances that recall the disappearance of two other girls. At first Eddie regards the story chiefly as a chance to make his own name, but when the local chief detective (Warren Clarke) starts blocking his access to files and key witnesses, Eddie takes on Clare’s murder as a personal cause. He visits the widowed mother of one of the other murdered girls, Paula Garland (a superb Rebecca Hall) and after a disastrous first interview, the two begin an anguished and morally murky love affair. Eddie’s reporter colleague Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan), one of those paranoid types who always believes “it goes all the way to the top,” warns him that the threads he’s tugging lead to a vast spider web of police corruption, all of which is somehow related to the machinations of real estate developer John Dawson (an oily and terrifying Sean Bean). As we know from The Parallax View, the most paranoid guy on-screen is usually right. Scandals are exposed and revenge taken, but Red Riding 1974 ends with the child murders still unsolved.
The 1980 episode picks up with an investigation of the apparently unrelated murders of several Yorkshire prostitutes. Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is called in from Manchester as the head detective on the case, but his ethical probity and Roman-Catholic uprightness immediately rub the local police the wrong way. He soon finds himself being tailed by a blackmailer who threatens to expose his one-time dalliance with a colleague (Maxine Peake). Minor characters from the earlier segment, especially a haunted male prostitute named B.J. (Robert Sheehan), emerge into prominence as the scope of the 1974 corruption scandal expands ever wider.
By 1983, the child murders have started up again, suggesting either that the mentally disabled man jailed for them in an earlier episode was innocent or that a copycat is at work. A local cop, Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), finally begins to bring together the scattered fragments of the story, aided by a lawyer (Mark Addy) who believes the convicted murderer was a fall guy. This last segment is the hardest to follow, perhaps because of its heavy reliance on flashbacks and on the questionable assumption that we understood what was going on in the first two.
The kind description of Red Riding’s story line would be “intricately plotted.” The uncharitable one would be “confusing.” With all the overlapping time frames, murky smoke-filled pubs and thick Yorkshire accents, it’s easy to lose track of who’s covering up for the sickening wrongdoing of whom. And when the directors attempt to get tricky with point-of-view camera, as happens too often in James Marsh’s middle segment, the film can feel overstylized and contrived. But genre crime fiction lives and dies by mood, and Red Riding’s mood—gritty, anguished, and unremittingly bleak—is a persuasive vision of the particular hell that was depressed postindustrial England in the Thatcher years.