'Red Riding Trilogy': England at its Bleakest

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In Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, a man wrongly convicted for murdering a Dallas police officer recounts something his mother once said about the city and its environs: "If there was ever a hell on earth, it's Dallas County." I grew up in Dallas, so this statement has always struck me as the ultimate scorched-earth indictment of a place.

Throughout The Red Riding Trilogy—a sprawling period serial-killer drama chiefly concerning, as did Morris's 1988 documentary, police malfeasance—I kept thinking to myself, "If there was ever a hell on earth, it's Yorkshire County." The northern England region has never seemed so misery-besotted—and that's really saying something.

But for all its suffocating bleakness, The Red Riding Trilogy, which is available this week on DVD and Blu-ray and to stream on Netflix, is an amazingly immersive experience. The 302-minute triptych—which revolves around the murder and mutilation of young girls—was adapted for British television from the novelist David Peace's Red Riding Quartet by screenwriter Tony Grisoni. The three installments—the portentously titled In the Year of Our Lord 1974, In the Year of Our Lord 1980, and In the Year of Our Lord 1983—are each directed by different veteran directors (Becoming Jane's Julian Jerrold, Man on Wire's James Marsh, and Shopgirl's Anand Tucker, respectively) on different formats (16mm, 35mm, and high-definition digital video, respectively). The films played in fall 2009 at the Telluride and New York film festivals, among others, and then IFC Films released them both on demand and as a sort of roadshow theatrical event (something the distributor had previously done with Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che).

So the is-it-film-or-TV question vexes in the case of Red Riding. It is for all intents and purposes a television miniseries, cannily packaged as a respectable-director relay. But while the project is most rewarding when viewed in installments, nothing about it particularly screams "miniseries." It's too sprawling—some characters and key storylines carry over from episode to episode, but each section plunges into an entirely new story without any immediate overlap or previously-on hand-holding. It also incorporates a wider range of aesthetic approaches than any TV miniseries I can think of.

Each individual part of The Red Riding Trilogy has its overwrought moments—in particular the aerial-shot- and flashback-heavy third film, which also features a tight-lipped police department higher-up engaging in a steamy affair with a medium—but the achievements of the series as a whole are really impressive: It's an intriguingly distended procedural (not unlike David Fincher's Zodiac), a sort of layered whodunit, and, last but not least, an alarming portrait of systemic corruption taking root.

In each film a principled man attempts to solve a spate of murders; the victims have a habit of turning up with swan wings stitched to their backs. In 1974, Andrew Garfield (the new Spider-Man) plays a reporter repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to expose the misdeeds of a wealthy land developer named Jack Dawson (Sean Bean). In 1980, the superb Paddy Considine plays a police officer brought in from the outside to head a crack team tasked with solving the Yorkshire Ripper murders; the West Yorkshire Constabulary finds reason to interfere with his investigation rather than cooperate with it. Mark Addy stars in 1983 as a slovenly public solicitor who spools up the microfilm with the intent of making an appeal on behalf of his neighbor's son, wrongly convicted for murder back in 1974. The solicitor makes headway where Garfield's and Considine's characters failed to. Case (sort of) closed.

Of course, like any gruesome foreign crime trilogy worth its salt, Red Riding is due for a Hollywood remake. On account of the thick accents here, I suppose you might call the planned redo an American-language remake—though the director attached, Ridley Scott, just so happens to be a Brit. I'll at least be curious to see what city is cast as hell on earth.

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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