Based on four novels by David Pearce, the Red Riding film trilogy is a series of well-crafted noir thrillers set amongst the crime and corruption of Yorkshire, England in the 1970s and '80s. The city at that time is revealed to have a dark, gritty underbelly where some give in to their illicit wishes and desires regardless of the consequences. Scarier than the details of the crimes committed is the believability and authenticity of a police force filled with corrupt members whose motto is "This is the North where we do what we want."
Originally airing in Britain on Channel Four, the films are making their way through the United States together. They have different directors and different looks. Julian Jarrold shot 1974 on 16mm film, James Marsh shot 1980 on 35mm film, and Anand Tucker shot 1983 using a Red One digital camera. Yet, all are linked together by some members of the talented cast and the writing of Tony Grisoni who did an excellent job adapting all three.
1974 introduces reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), a young man filled with idealism about his job who soon learns that aspect alone is insufficient when challenging the powers that be. While working a case involving abducted young girls, Eddie's path crosses that of local businessman John Dawson (Sean Bean) when the disfigured body of Claire Kemplay is found on his property. Dawson is also the focus of Eddie's co-worker Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan) due to his questionable business dealings.
As part of his investigation Eddie meets with Paula (Rebecca Hall), the mother of one of the missing girls. Soon after, officers Craven (Sean Harris) and Douglas (Tony Mooney) make clear he should stay far away. Eddie refuses and gets personally involved, which has dire consequences. Meanwhile a young retarded man, Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), confesses his guilt to the police and is jailed for Claire's murder.
The serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper has been terrorizing the city for six years in 1980. With the local police unable to stop him, the higher-ups send in Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) from Manchester to take over the case. Hunter has history with the Yorkshire police when he unsuccessfully investigated the shooting incident seen at the climax of 1974 which involved officers.
Going over the Ripper case with two detectives he brought with him, John Nolan (Tony Pitts) and Helen Marshall (Maxine Peake), Hunter finds one murder victim, Clare Strachan (Kelly Freemantle) doesn't fit the modus operandi. However, she has a dubious connection to the late Detective Eric Hall. As Hunter's investigation proceeds, it is made difficult by resistance from the local police and his relationship with Marshall.
In 1983, the disappearance of Hazel Atkins is reminiscent of Kemplay years ago. This causes qualms in Detective Chief Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) who had worked the previous case. There had been another suspect apart from Michael Myshkin but that man was given an alibi by John Dawson. Jobson is told to meet with a psychic to help and she reveals Hazel is connected to the 1974 case.
Myshkin's mother approaches neighbor and solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy) to appeal her son's conviction. He finally agrees to meet Michael and finds him very disturbed but he doesn’t know what can be done since Myshkin confessed.
The police bring in Leonard Cole (Gerard Kearns), the young man who found Kemplay's body, and coerce a confession out of him to Jobson's disgust. Cole's mother goes to Piggott for help and as he investigates, he finds neither young man guilty. Both Jobson and Piggott work independently to reveal the truth and put a stop to a decade of crime.
The greatest element in the Red Riding trilogy is how well the three films work in conjunction with each other. 1974 is good crime drama, but the weaker of the three because there were some questionable story moments, such as why Eddie was allowed to cause so much trouble. He likely could have "disappeared" and the responsible parties would have gotten away with it scot-free. However, there are compelling revelations in the following two films that, while they don't absolve these issues, do make the entire Red Riding story richer by adding more depth. Answers revealed in 1974 are not necessarily the real answers to the mysteries, and I found myself wanting to revisit it armed with all the information provided.
Coming in at less than six hours, the Red Riding trilogy is highly recommended for crime fans. Created like episodes in a TV series, the three films should be viewed in the same manner with the less time between segments the better.