Heavy with gloom and so violent that a single misstep might have reduced it to macabre comedy, “Red Riding: 1974” has the feeling of a nightmare.
Director Julian Jarrold favors dim light and bleak skies, mitigated only by illuminating flashes so brilliant as to be blinding.
If they seem to suggest a break from the grim reality of journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) investigating a series of child murders in Yorkshire, the illusion is fleeting.
At no time is “1974,” the first episode of the “Red Riding” trilogy released last year for BBC television, anything close to cheery.
The film’s doom is laid on so thick it’s suffocating, and Jarrold is aided by Tony Grisoni’s glum screenplay, faithfully adapted from David Peace’s historically inspired 1999 novel.
If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the “Red Riding” trilogy, it’s that good intentions are an express ticket to the grave. There’s no room for heroes in dens of corruption.
That becomes clearer in James Marsh’s “1980,” in which an outside investigator, suspicious of the West Yorkshire detectives whose company he reluctantly keeps, arrives from Manchester to examine another botched case, inching closer to the truth but unable to bring it to light.
Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) takes over the search for the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, behind whose 13 real-life murders the police have been hiding some of their own, but the investigator’s efforts are derailed by a well-organized smear campaign.
Marsh depicts their transgressions in a fashion far more straightforward than Jarrold’s, and for that we can be grateful — if “1974” establishes the trilogy’s tone, “1980” helps us make sense of Grisoni’s story.
Critical details emerge, characters previously in the shadows step to the forefront, and at last we begin to understand what Dunford and Hunter are up against: unchecked depravity of men drunk with power and driven by greed, who will stop at nothing to conceal their crimes.
The trilogy’s third act, “1983,” is a similarly unvarnished affair, directed by Anand Tucker, and for the first time we sense cause
Can the righteous — embodied here by an unkempt lawyer (Mark Addy) and a dirty cop (David Morrissey) whose conscience compels him to take a stand — stem the tide of corruption? Even after so much bloodshed, it seems strangely possible. The last chapter deals with another child murder, similar to the so-called Moors murders documented in “1974.” Some begin to suspect that the man convicted of those earlier killings might have been goaded into a false confession.
John Piggott (Addy) effectively reopens the case, and though his fact-finding techniques are neither as savvy as Hunter’s nor as dogged as Dunford’s, he gets results.
Individually, the “Red Riding” movies are as stylish and morbidly enthralling as they are repellent. Together, they add up to a satisfying whole. (As a stand-alone, “1974” works best, though “1980” is ultimately more rewarding and loaded with bigger surprises.)
Audiences may not tolerate such a sobering ride during five-plus hours, but viewing the films in succession is the most efficient way to navigate their many twists and turns.
Red Riding Trilogy
Three and a half stars
Starring Andrew Garfield, Rebecca Hall, Sean Bean
Directed by Julian Jarrold
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes
Starring Warren Clarke, Paddy Considine, James Fox
Directed by James Marsh
Running time 1 hour 36 minutes
Starring David Morrissey, Mark Addy, Sean Bean
Written by David Peace, Tony Grisoni
Directed by Anand Tucker
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes