As clammily claustrophobic, intimate, and muckraking as a first-wave noir, yet as epic as a three-parter can be, Red Riding Trilogy dares to mix an almost mystical tone with its hard-boiled mystery, a straight-faced sense of outrage with its well-chilled, gloomy cynicism. The Yorkshire accents may be thick and murky as a bog, but the visions of Red Riding directors — Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited), James Marsh (Man on Wire), and Anand Tucker (Shopgirl) — come through with inspired lucidity, while Tony Grisoni’s screenplay, based on David Pearce’s novels, effectively manages its bewildering thicket of threads.
The first film, 1974, by Jarrold, is the most coolly gorgeous of the three, spinning a web of pervasive corruption that extends from the deepest reaches of the police department to the strange, wicked tentacles extended by wealthy and powerful developer John Dawson (Sean Bean). Fourth Estate dupe, or, ahem, protagonist, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) is defined by his cockiness: he has all the arrogance, confidence, and irreverence of youth, ready to prove himself as a cub newspaper reporter at the Yorkshire Post. The day’s major story: little Claire Kemplay has gone missing in her riding-hood-red cape. Dunford suspects she’s linked to two other missing girls, and after missing the discovery of Claire’s body — swan wings have been brutally stitched to her back — he embarks on his own ad-hoc investigation, interviewing the boy, Leon Cole (Gerard Kearns), who found Claire in developer Dawson’s construction site, and Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), the mother of missing girl Jeannette. As the case heats up — with info from coworker Barry (Anthony Flanagan) and Barry’s informant, the savvy yet traumatized hustler BJ (Robert Sheehan) — so does Eddie’s entanglement with Paula, who he discovers is embroiled with Dawson. For the couple, the south beckons like a hazy sanctuary, but instead all roads appear to lead to a fatalist finale reminiscent of Chinatown and Taxi Driver.
Director Marsh thickens the plot — and corruption — with the second installment, 1980, marked by the cheerless toast, “This is the North — we do what we want.” This installment circles back around to the same characters and, crucially, 1974’s violent denouement: this time via the cracked prism of the Yorkshire Ripper killings. Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) of the Manchester Police is fingered to lead a secret Home Office inquiry into the Ripper investigation and the Yorkshire police force’s dealings. It’s a return to ruined, wretched ground — and unfinished business. Hunter had looked into the Yorkshire department in the past, and this time he encounters the same impenetrable, obfuscating figures, alongside his lover, Manchester detective Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake). Following a tip from BJ, Hunter peers more closely at the supposed-Ripper murder of Clare Strachan, leading him back into the thorny brambles of Yorkshire law enforcement and back to 1974’s end-game.
Still, nothing ever quite ends until Tucker’s 1983, when one seemingly marginal cop — Detective Chief Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) — steps to the fore in disgust. A schoolgirl, Hazel Atkins, has disappeared and, spurred by press speculation about the similarities between the girl and the late Claire Kemplay and led by a local psychic Mandy (Saskia Reeves), Jobson begins to dig deeper, revisiting the injustice of the past and growing ever more repulsed by the brutal interrogation tactics practiced by his colleagues. In the meantime, a shy, sad lawyer, John Piggott (Mark Addy), is tapped by neighbors to look into the case of Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays). Myshkin was convicted of Claire Kemplay’s murder and, traumatized and forced to sign a false confession, now babbles in his defense, “It was the Wolf.” The now-deceased Wolf (a.k.a. John Dawson) was apparently only a part of a pack, and with the reappearance of BJ, the hunt is on.
The resolution of sorts — the complicit, after all, continue to dart outside the edges of the frame — comes almost like a moment of luminosity and grace amid the dank, elegiac sense of doom seeping through Red Riding. Likewise, the names of the key dead girls, Claire Kemplay and Clare Strachan, seem to mock the viewer with the promise of smudgy clarity. And the overall mood is admirably sustained by the directors — Julian Jarrold (1974), James Marsh (1980), and Anand Tucker (1983) — while highlighting the subtle differences between the troika: Jarrold is the romantic of the lot, with his lingering, moody close-ups; Marsh, the relatively hard-nosed, just-the-facts realist; Tucker, the lonely-heart enthralled by the promise of release. Thanks to Grissoni’s and the three directors’ work, Red Riding Trilogy penetrates and stays with you, like the dampness and the dread.