Red Riding’s Yorkshire is dreary and harsh, populated with sour-faced characters who move about in a disturbingly dark version of small-town life, where real estate developers lord over an empire of corruption and vice. The three films that make up the Red Riding trilogy, In The Year of Our Lord: 1974, In The Year of Our Lord: 1980, and In The Year of Our Lord: 1983, are dank and pungent like strong scotch. The sound of the Yorkshire dialect and the vivid faces of the locals who populate the screen are as fascinating as the drama itself. The films, an adaptation of novelist David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, were originally shown in the United Kingdom as a mini-series on Channel Four, but Red Riding holds up as an epic-length movie. All three parts will open at the Angelika Film Center this weekend.
But there is a problem with Red Riding as a theatrical release. The film is best viewed as a trilogy, and only die-hard movie goers are likely to see all three installments in the theater. Although each of the three movies are designed to stand on their own, when taken as singular films, each has flaws. The first in the trilogy, 1974, focuses on a young journalist, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), who gets a job for the Yorkshire Post as a crime reporter and begins to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. As he digs he discovers corruption within the police department and suspects a powerful real estate developer, John Dawson (Sean Bean), as the culprit. The more he digs, the more he is pushed away and intimidated, by the police and his own editors. It is a harrowing, Kafka-esque study of frustration and injustice, but it also suffers from familiar flaws of novelistic adaptation. Eddie seems lean as a character, and you can’t shake the sense that there are scenes from the novel missing in the movie that flesh him out. And while 1974’s conclusion is as thrilling as it is troubling, it feels rushed and incomplete, like the beginning, not the end of a story. Because it is. Eddie is only an introduction to a world that is fleshed-out in the later films.
If any of these movies stand on its own, it is 1980, and yet the second installment feels most out of place in the trilogy. Whereas 1974 and 1983 focus on the child abductions, 1980 is caught up in the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who has claimed 13 victims. A special investigative team from outside Yorkshire is formed to track down the killer, bringing in investigator Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) from Manchester. Hunter encounters a stubborn, myopic West Yorkshire police force that would rather see the case go unsolved than have an outsider catch “their ripper.” General rudeness turns to all-out intimidation and harassment as the case heats up. Hunter is blackmailed, his house is burned down, and the subjects of his investigation keep showing up dead. Like Eddie, Hunter is frustrated by the corruption and tries to take justice into his own hands.
The third installment, 1983, is just simply not a stand-alone film; its plot is too firmly rooted in the first film, 1974, with extended flashback sequences that would be difficult to decipher without the first movie. Beyond mere clarity, without the world built up around the story over the previous two installments, the great dramatic climax – the significance and horror of the trilogy’s resolution – doesn’t have sufficient weight. The final film looks back on the events of 1974 after a girl has gone missing. After the first film, everyone has assumed that the right person was locked up for the child abductions (the handicapped boy Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays)) because no more girls have been killed. The new incident sets in motion Michael’s parents, who hire the slovenly, drunkard lawyer John Piggot (Mark Addy) to file an appeal, and Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a police detective whose conscious begins to weigh on him after years of witnessing extreme corruption within the force. The two begin to undercover what looks like a pedophilia ring that goes straight to the highest levels of local society and power.
Coming to the third film after the first two is an incredible experience. By that point, you feel like you are at least familiar with the ways of Yorkshire and desensitized from its evil, but the film manages to break you down, unsettle you, and make you vulnerable to its final horror. This effect is achieved not from any great plot or singular performance, but from the steady wear and tear of being immersed in the world of the Red Riding trilogy for the full six hours. The world Red Riding creates is ultimately the star of the film, and Red Riding succeeds by winning a war of attrition with the viewer, just as the corrupt world of Yorkshire wears down the film’s central protagonists.
The series ends with a voice over from BJ (Robert Sheehan), a young male prostitute who helps unite all three segments as kind of street sage; he knows all the town’s secrets because of his profession. BJ’s monologue is dense, the language rich and rapid-fire, and you glimpse the world Peace created in his prose. By the end of the three films, you know the old cliché that the book is better than the movie is right again – even if you have never read Peace’s four novels. Red Riding never achieves the same stirring heights as this language, but six hours of staring at these long-faced Yorkshiremen still gets you mighty close.