Red Riding Trilogy

Highly detailed, atmospheric storytelling lifts these tales beyond the action’s sordid transgressions



"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." —Friedrich Nietzsche

The goal of any film is to successfully transport you to another time and place, to immerse you so completely in its story, characters and visuals that you leave the real world behind. And for most of the Red Riding trilogy, the filmmakers accomplish just that, plunging you into 1970s and '80s-era Yorkshire, England. No one, however, is promising you a pleasant holiday.

Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle of societal decay and corruption, Red Riding's three films — originally created for BBC television — are steeped in the same murky, soul-rotting noir that permeates James Ellroy's work. Based on a series of crime novels by David Peace, this movie triptych is inspired by real events that took place between 1974 and 1983. Each film is penned by screenwriter Tony Grisoni (Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas) but helmed by different directors, delivering an impressively detailed yet convoluted chronicle of child abduction, murder, police corruption, shady land deals and the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Don't let the three-film marathon scare you off. Though each can stand on its own, taken together the narrative becomes a cinematic novel, revealing deeper layers of truth while intensifying its pitch-black themes. 

The first and best chapter is In the Year of Our Lord 1974, which concerns a cocky young journalist (Andrew Garfield) who investigates a string of child abductions and ends up uncovering an insidious relationship between a local land developer (Sean Bean) and the Yorkshire police department. 1980 follows a straight-arrow Manchester detective (Paddy Considine) who is tasked with solving the Yorkshire Ripper case but instead uncovers profound criminality in the local constabulary. 1983 brings us back to the first chapter, as a corrupt cop and a down-on-his-luck attorney (Mark Addy) investigate the disappearance of yet another young girl. (A fourth novel, 1977, wasn't filmed).

Since all three episodes were created for television, the filmmaking is mostly workmanlike but the writing is muscular and the performances are exceptional. Julian Jarrold's smoked-choked interiors and gritty 16mm imagery in 1974 effectively set the stage for Red Riding's highly detailed yet atmospheric storytelling. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire), on the other hand, brings a measured, cinematic approach to 1980, delivering a detached but most satisfying middle chapter. Only the flashback-laden and too-obvious 1983 disappoints, as director Anand Tucker struggles to balance the weight of its revelations against two separate protagonists, neither of whom get the focus they deserve. Though it provides some much-needed answers (and a small glimmer of hope), the final film unravels the tightly wound tension of its predecessors.

Though Red Riding occasionally comes off as the kind of police procedural the BBC excels at (Prime Suspect, Touching Evil), the three films are actually after bigger game. Its view of Yorkshire, and by extension British culture, is an indictment against a society contaminated by pernicious corruption, fascistic rule and moral decay. At almost every turn, its plot goes rancid, dashing your hopes for redemption or decency. It's an exhausting, haunting yet compelling way to confront the seemingly unending cycle of violence that devours both innocence and justice. And though every frame is steeped in sordid immorality, the darkness draws you in, creating an unsettlingly rich experience that despairs as much as it rewarding.

A word of warning: The Northern England accents in 1974 are particularly thick. Try to give the dialogue a soft focus rather than fretting over whether you've understood each and every word.  Eventually, your ear should attune itself properly.

"Red Riding" refers to the Ridings, a trio of administrative areas in Yorkshire. "Red" most likely meant to evoke the violence of the murders while alluding to fairy tale motifs (young girls were often the victims). Many of the central characters are referred to by animal nicknames — wolf, swan, pig, owl.

1974 screens at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 19-20 and March 26-27, and on Sunday, March 21 and March 28 at 1 p.m. 1980 screens at 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 19-20 and March 26-27 and on Sunday, March 21 and March 28 at 3 p.m. 1983 screens at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 19-20 and March 26-27 and on Sunday, March 21 and March 28 at 5 p.m. At the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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