Perhaps not since David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” has there been an epic of desolation like this three-part series about murder, corruption and the impotence of society to combat them made for British television and now released to theatres on this side of the Atlantic. “Red Riding Trilogy,” based on novels by David Peace, is specific to the area of West Yorkshire (the “riding” of the title) in the decade between 1974 and 1983, and is loosely based (as is his ongoing trilogy set in Japan) on actual crimes. But its sad observations on human cruelty and weakness, unhappily, have a universal application.
The three episodes share the locale of the region around Leeds, though in various years (1974, 1980 and 1983). But they center on different investigators. The first follows callow, careless young crime reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) as he looks into the disappearance of a young girl who’s merely the latest in a string of victims and comes up against a powerful, protected local land developer (Sean Bean). The confession of Michael Myshkin (Daniel Mays), obviously a docile dupe, doesn’t end matters, and the narrative ends in an explosion of violence. The second episode is set against the desperate effort to catch the so-called Yorkshire Ripper. The lead character here is Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine), a scrupulously honest inspector sent from Manchester to look into whether the locals have botched the investigation. Once again, the arrest of the perpetrator (Joseph Mawle) hardly resolves the matter. And finally the 1983 installment recounts the efforts of shabbily ineffectual solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy) to handle the appeal of the long-jailed Myshkin against the backdrop of another kidnapping.
While the shamuses change, what stays the same is the pervasive atmosphere of corruption represented by those in authority, especially the police, an outfit—as depicted here—capable of virtually any brutality in the pursuit of profit and security for themselves. Notable among them are the thuggish Bob Craven (Sean Harris) and John Nolan (Tony Pitts), the conflicted Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), and especially the utterly amoral chief Bill Malloy (Warren Clarke), architect of the police cabal. But other figures lurking in the shadows generate a sense of foreboding as well, notably a sinister clergyman called Laws (Peter Mullan) and an almost ethereal young wanderer called BJ (Robert Sheehan). And a rich gallery of people, from the sad, grief-stricken mother (Rebecca Hall) whom Dunford beds to the colleague (Maxine Peake) Hunter’s attracted to, fill the background, all brought to life by some of Britain’s best character actors.
What also remains constant is the bleakness of the place, where there seems no chance of redemption, captured not only in Tony Grisoni’s scripts and the direction by Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Rucker, but the evocative cinematography by Rob Hardy, Igor Martinovic and David Higgs. There is, to be sure, a sliver of hope at the close, when a child is rescued, a villain dispatched, and a victim escapes. For a moment even the slate-gray clouds lift and sunshine fills the frame, so bright in fact that it’s almost painful.
But “Red Riding” gives you the feeling that it’s only a brief respite, and that gloom will soon envelop Yorkshire again, just as it’s enveloped you for the five hours it’s taken for the trilogy to spin its twisty, complicated tale of a place that houses the heart of darkness as fully as any on earth. One leaves this long but fascinating series appalled at the level of depravity one tiny corner of the globe can hold, but strangely exhilarated—as well as moved—by the craft and cunning with which it’s been portrayed.