In 2009, UK’s Channel 4 adapted David Peace’s bestselling Red Riding Quartet and aired it in three episodes over the course of a week. All together, they run just over 300 minutes (5 hours,) which makes them too long to really consider a trilogy or a miniseries and a bit too long to consider just one movie. But even though the story is divided into three easily demarcated chapters, each with its own protagonist, I’d recommend setting aside a Saturday afternoon and watching them all at once; this is a complicated story, not made simpler by the way it’s being told, and if you leave yourself any time at all to forget the details from one film before starting the next, you’re likely to get hopelessly confused. I certainly felt that way more than once.
That is, if you’re going to watch them at all. “Red Riding” certainly isn’t for everyone; it’s about the seedy side of North England, and brings in just about every seedy element possible. We start with missing children, then expand into small-scale genocide, police corruption, prostitution rings, pornography, and pedophile clergy. If it’s unsavory, it’s in here. If you don’t want to see it on the screen, you’re likely to.
But for fans of intricate procedurals, and dark, gritty mysteries, “Red Riding” will be a hidden gem. There’s plenty of intrigue, surprise revelations, and betrayals. (In a way, “Red Riding” feels like a nice appetizer for the coming “Girl Who” movies, who will no doubt revel in seaminess and intrigue to at least this degree.)
Each episode is directed by someone different, which I think is a mistake handling material this interrelated. The producers frontloaded their big name talent in the first installment, “1974;” Andrew Garfield is a reckless investigative reporter; Eddie Marsan (one of my favorite actors) is the police beat journalist he’s replacing, Sean Bean is the corrupt businessman he’s investigating, and Rebecca Hall is the mother of a missing daughter who becomes his mistress. Neither of the other two will have this level of name recognition; or even close. Garfield comes home to West Yorkshire after a stint in London and wants to prove his merit to his editor (and family) immediately. He doesn’t seem to understand the risks involved in digging up dirt on powerful people; only the glory that comes when you’ve published an important piece of journalism. He moves fast and doesn’t care about consequences; he’s simultaneously investigating the disappearance of several little girls, the burning of a gypsy camp, and the hint of police corruption that hangs over it all. It’s that last one that finally undoes him, and that’s where “1974” ends.
Part 2 – “1980” by title – involves a police investigation led by Paddy Considine,
a straitlaced cop trying to figureout why the West Yorkshire police department has utterly failed to capture the Yorkshire Ripper (a real serial killer, though the rest of the story is fiction.) Sean Harris does great work as the local cop that supposed to aid him in his investigation, but is determined to intimidate and obstruct him in every way possible. Considine brings a team of his own from “the city,” including a female detective he’s recently had an affair with. (On that note, I’ve got to say that romance is one of the things “Red Riding” does particularly badly. All three protagonists have relationships that absolutely strain the limits of believability, and the films do nothing to convince us that these characters would actually get involved. One wonders if romantic subplots were added at the last minute to “spice things up” somehow.) Considine et al. starts to dig; he uncovers a prostitution ring and pornography business run by a former member of the police department, and begins to suspect that at least one of the murders credited to the Ripper was committed by a badge. Let’s just say that the PD doesn’t exactly appreciate the work he does, and take action of their own before it becomes public.
Which leads us to Part 3 – “1983,” which is primarily about one of the corrupt policemen and his guilty conscience. Little children have started to go missing again, and David Morrissey knows too much to really conduct the investigation, but all the years of lying and killing and protecting monsters are weighing him down. Add to the mix an inquisitive lawyer (played by Peter Mullan) who starts poking into those old 1974 murders, and things are ripe for a resolution. “1983” spends a lot of time going back and filling in gaps in the first two films; this is often thrilling, because the information withheld is game-changing in more than one case. But more often than not, it’s just hopelessly confusing. With some effort, I followed the serpentine plotlines of the first two parts reasonably well, but this third one was hopelessly confusing, in major part because it’s full of flashbacks, but the director does nothing to tell us what’s flashback and what isn’t. Just a dateline across the screen would’ve been sufficient, but is not supplied. I had to rewind and watch again several times to figure out what was going on; I can’t imagine seeing this in the theater without feeling hopelessly confused.
If you have the taste for British potboilers and aren’t squeamish about things like pedophilia and serial rapists, you might find “Red Riding” deeply enjoyable. If you’re looking for a popcorn movie, definitely look elsewhere. While I enjoyed the complexity and intrigue, there are certainly times when it feels like “Red Riding” is being confusing and misleading on purpose. In my book, that’s cheating.