The very best film series seem to exist in a place outside of time, even when they're set in a very specific period. With its story ties to feudal Japan courtesy of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, Star Wars played like a classic, mythical adventure set against a vividly realistic futuristic backdrop. The same could be said about The Godfather trilogy or George A. Romero's Dead trilogy, which somehow manage to feel modern and fresh despite the fact they all take place at very specific times in very specific places, some of which -- such as a certain shopping mall -- aren't so glamorous. Bleak and all-brick, with ominous nuclear towers serving as a toxic town gate, Fitzwilliam, West Yorkshire, England, "be fit for naught but dogs" in the words of DCS Bill Molloy. It's also the black center of this gripping, deeply unsettling tale of murder, corruption, and collusion.
Based on the novels by author David Peace, the three films 1974, 1980, and 1983 weave a sordid tale of murder and police corruption around the search for the Yorkshire Ripper, a vicious serial killer who terrorized the city of his nickname-sake between October of 1975 and November of 1980.
Yorkshire, England: 1974. Someone is abducting children, and budding Yorkshire Post reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) suspects he has evidence to link the recent disappearance of Clare Kemplay to a pair of suspiciously similar abductions from recent years. When a young local named Leonard Cole (Gerard Kearns) discovers the body of a murdered girl with swan wings stitched to her back, Eddie and his colleague Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan) begin a descent into a dark conspiracy involving ambitious real estate developer John Dawson (Sean Bean) and the local police force.
A tantalizing piece of a larger puzzle that's still a compelling, fully satisfying mystery unto itself, the first installment of the Red Riding trilogy plays like a cross between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Zodiac with a splash of giallo to spice things up. Lest anyone doubt the quality of the production, given its small-screen origins, 1974 is a strikingly cinematic experience all around: the period details are exquisite, the cinematography is seductively bold, and Tony Grisoni's screenplay is both richly detailed and paced with the unyielding consistency of a world-class marathon runner. Andrew Garfield is perfectly cast as the ambitious yet naïve Yorkshire Post reporter unraveling a mystery that quickly threatens to swallow him up, and the supporting cast are all top-notch. Bean and Eddie Marsan, in particular, shine as the swaggering real estate magnate and a cynical Yorkshire Post veteran respectively. Much like The Sopranos or Lost, the first installment of the Red Riding trilogy is the kind of television production that raises the bar for everything to follow, and we'll likely be seeing its influence for years to come.
Back in 1974, Senior Manchester detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) was investigating a police shooting in Yorkshire when a family tragedy summoned him away from work. Now, in the second film, it's 1980, and Hunter is back in Yorkshire, this time investigating the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, who's been stalking the streets for six years. The original police investigation was considered a massive failure, and it's Hunter's job to look at the case from a fresh perspective. Recruiting detectives Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake) and John Nolan (Tony Pitts) to assist in the investigation, Hunter begins working alongside Officer Bob Craven (Sean Harris), who had previously been a part of the police shooting that Hunter was investigating back in 1974. When Hunter begins to suspect that a murder originally linked with the Yorkshire Ripper is actually a copy-cat killing, he meets a mysterious young man named BJ (Robert Sheehan), who previously helped Eddie Dunford and who has some startling information about corruption in the local police force.
Whenever you're dealing in trilogies, there's always the threat of the second chapter feeling like filling -- and not the sugary good stuff we all like to savor. In fashioning the story of 1980 around Detective Hunter replacing Bill Molloy as the head of the Ripper investigation, it would seem like screenwriter Tony Grisoni had the ideal opportunity to bring the police corruption angle of the tale into painfully sharp focus. But, while a few scenes (including a genuinely unnerving exchange between Hunter and Craven and a murder's shocking aftermath) keep us involved, a side-step into a few aspects of Hunter's personal life make the film less about the investigation than the people who are doing the sleuthing. And when you've got a story this winding, any plateaus become more pronounced. Likewise, the fact that Hunter's personal story is relentlessly depressing adds emotional muck to the already dense proceedings. The main draws here are the performances by Considine and Harris, and a fairly spectacular payoff, leading into an especially satisfying final chapter.
1983: Almost a decade after the first disappearance, Hazel Atkins vanishes without a trace on her way home from school. Leonard Cole is about to take the heat for Hazel's disappearance as Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) wrestles with his conscience over previously framing mentally deficient Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays) for the Ripper murders under duress from his intimidating superior Bill Molloy (Warren Clarke). Meanwhile, after burying his mother, portly, overborne public solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy) attempts to draw the truth out of Cole, and follows his inquiries straight to the blighted sprawl of Fitzwilliam, and Reverend Martin Laws (Peter Mullan). Piggott isn't the only one on the trail to Fitzwilliam, though, because BJ is also coming to town with some heavy baggage that's more than just bad memories from a violated youth.
Revelations and redemption both come at a particularly high price in the intense and engrossing final chapter of the Red Riding trilogy. Though the increasing occurrence of flashbacks as the story winds to a close can threaten to buck us off at times, it truly pays to maintain a firm grip on the details, which keep the action from feeling quite as stifled as in the previous installment. Here, the storytelling, direction, and performances come together at a point that's near pitch-perfect, and strikingly cinematic. (It's almost enough to forgive Anand Tucker the transgression of the recent Leap Year, equally as harrowing for altogether different reasons.) Tony Grisoni infuses the story with a compelling study in the corrosive nature of not only collusion and guilt, but revenge as well, ensuring that we remain emotionally transfixed even while we're essentially riding the rails through the dark. The introduction of a psychic angle into the story lends the final chapter a mysterious air that stands in fascinating contrast to the dour, depressingly realistic surroundings while simultaneously offering valuable insight into Detective Superintendent Jobson's long-gestating inner conflict.
Taken as a whole, the Red Riding trilogy is an absorbing crime drama, a fascinating study in the darker aspects of human nature, and a cogent reminder that quality television is still very much alive and well. In the wake of the trilogy's theatrical release in the U.S., it would come as no surprise when, in mid-October 2009, it was announced that director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian were in talks with Columbia Pictures to adapt the three films into a single feature, scheduled for release in 2012. Given the stellar quality of the original series -- not to mention the time constraints of a single feature film -- the Hollywood veteran will most certainly have his work cut out for him.