“This is the North – we do what we want.”
This horrific credo repeats throughout The Red Riding Trilogy, a reminder of the massive evil infecting the fabric of everyday life in Yorkshire, England during the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s also just one of the many menacing symbols connecting this trio of films (individually titled 1974, 1980, and 1983), each dissecting the limitless corruption and crime plaguing the city’s infrastructure and citizenry. Part faded memory, part archaeological dig, Red Riding envisions years of murder, greed, and cover up fading together along a gap-riddled timeline, churning three individual films into an overlapping Goliath of historical darkness and shadow. No sadistic rock is left unturned, and the worst villains rise from the most trusted of institutions.
The separate heroes of Red Riding – Eddie (Andrew Garfield), a naive young journalist in 1974, Peter (Paddy Constantine), an embattled police detective in 1980, and John (Mark Addy), a cynical lawyer in 1983 – all stem from a place of broken purpose and identity. Haunted by skeletons in the familial and professional closet, each crusades against the obvious deception of the present to rectify the innocent ghosts of the past, attempting to shift Yorkshire’s culture of fear in the process. All three unearth clues to the poisonous acts perpetrated by police, politicians, and corporate businessmen, but none fully relinquish public perception and control from the multi-headed snake. This ambiguity makes Red Riding an extremely effective, complex, and ambitious procedural, transcending murky tangents and unnecessary characters to highlight the connective tissue of history, one that records the consequences of action and silence in blood.
And the walls of Yorkshire get painted red by all types of demons and devils. Brutal child killers, heinous cops, and compromising wordsmiths prey on the expectations of the weak, creating a facade of safety while plucking innocent victims at their leisure. While the heroes of Red Riding exist within their respective narratives, the evildoers transcend time, popping up in each episode, repopulating the stormy grey mise-en-scene with deadly influence. Mutilated bodies, missing children photos, and coffin namesakes become their narrative calling cards, artifacts of a collective ideology warped by manipulation and fear. One bureaucratic Beelzebub calls it an “oasis”, and for his kind he’s right.
Directed by three very different filmmakers (Jullian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker), Red Riding should be viewed as a singular cinematic experience. The strong thematic connections between 1974, 1980, and 1983 speak to the power of Tony Grisoni’s expansive adaptation of David Peace’s novels, a meandering serpentine layout linked by hazy flashbacks, complex remembrances, and haunting allusions. The films don’t just deal with the struggle between good and evil, but the relationship between remembering and forgetting, repetition and tradition. But the screenplay is also Red Riding‘s worst enemy, as it’s often too big for the respective filmmakers to successfully interrupt and clarify. This forces certain segments, specifically 1974 and 1983, into messy and unearned dramatic conclusions, disavowing the non-linear nature of the whole in favor of specific genre conventions.
Still, Red Riding is consistently fascinating in scope, delving deep into one community’s array of dark passengers strangling justice from the inside out. Eventually, the funerals, disappearances, and crime scenes overwhelm even the most condemned characters, forcing them into action after a decade of detailed decay and compromise. But there’s a disturbing sense of cyclical inaction at the heart of these films, one that cannot be cured by narrative closure. If history is written by the victors, then the wolves and rats of Red Riding strengthen their grasp of the record by interpreting their vile conquests as progressive acts, devouring morality and honor to feed their selfish little weaknesses. Red Riding suggests that one way or another everyone plays a part, whether we stand in futile protest or bury our heads in the blood-drenched sand.