“Bad day?” one man inquires. “Aren’t they all?” his mate replies, neatly summing up the pall of death and decay that infests and infects the world of West Yorkshire in “Red Riding,” a compelling, disturbing crime drama that leapfrogs through a decade’s worth of corruption and venality, leaving everyone in its vicinity permanently soiled or six feet under. Condensed from four novels by English crime writer David Peace, published between 1999 and 2002, into three interconnected feature-length telefilms broadcast by the U.K.’s Channel 4 in March, the trilogy will be released theatrically and on demand by IFC Films this fall after select fest showings, where reception should be strong, as it was in Britain.
The novels and films are a mix of fact and fiction centered around the disappearances of several young girls and the crimes of the actual Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who killed 13 women from 1975-80 while eluding police. (Sutcliffe could, astonishingly, be released from prison two years from now.) The films, entitled “1974,” “1980” and “1983” (Peace’s other book was “1977”), reverberate significantly with one another, and are not designed to be stand-alone pictures, although the middle one could almost manage as a solo item.
Dramatically and thematically, all these infuriating crimes against women open a door onto an appalling picture of official corruption that has the police at its center, flanked by big business and the clergy. There is some off-putting political correctness in the alignment of good guys and bad guys, with very traditional heavies having their way with gays, gypsies and the mentally handicapped, just for starters. But the baddies are a clan fully the equal of TV’s Sopranos in what they’re willing to do in the name of business and the status quo, and are all the more loathsome for wearing badges.
Some of the local accents are so thick that IFC has advisedly subtitled all the dialogue. But even undivided viewer concentration will not guarantee complete understanding of the narrative here. Some of this can be explained away as befitting the material, which is dense and perhaps never entirely penetrable, but partly it’s that too many names and events are thrown at the viewer, and in too cursory a manner. “Red Riding” is both an eyebrow-raiser and a brow-furrower.
For a while in “1974” (all the titular dates are preceded onscreen with the words “The Year of Our Lord”), the drama unfolds like a provincial version of the original miniseries of “State of Play.” Young Yorkshire Post correspondent Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) is looking into the case of the latest girl who has gone missing but doesn’t get very far, bumping up against unfounded rumors of gypsies and Irish being up to no good.
But when the girl turns up dead, with swans’ wings stitched into her back, the pot begins to boil. A mentally challenged immigrant (Daniel Mays) is railroaded into confessing, a seemingly paranoid newshound bites the dust but leaves Eddie with incriminating photos of police and officials, and Eddie starts an affair with another missing girl’s vulnerable mum (Rebecca Hall). But the latter is also a plaything of the area’s swaggering real estate magnate, John Dawson (Sean Bean).
It all ends startlingly with a “Taxi Driver”-like massacre and, while more than one of the principal figures doesn’t live to see the morn, that doesn’t prevent them from showing up in revelatory flashbacks in subsequent installments.
Directed by Julian Jarrold (“Bridehead Revisited”) and shot in 16mm with a dingy immediacy, the episode by design raises more questions than it answers. It’s a grimly bracing vision of an everyday hell, with evil seething beneath a profound banality of culture, taste and behavior. “1974” also establishes the immaculate level of acting that will distinguish the entire trilogy, beginning here with the stellar work of Hall and Bean.
“1980” shifts stylistically into bold 35mm widescreen and dramatically into a Home Office investigation of police bungling in the Ripper case by an outsider, Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine, terrific). The straight-arrow Hunter gets little but taunting resistance from the tightly knit cops, who are revealed in flashbacks as expert torturers and participants in the “1974” carnage.
Cops who remained background figures in the first episode move to the foreground here, notably the obvious ne’er-do-wells, frighteningly played by Sean Harris and Tony Pitts, and the new chief (David Morrissey, increasingly dominant). The Rev. Laws (Peter Mullan), who wears a collar but whose ties to any established church remain vague, becomes a gnawingly suspicious figure.
But a most unexpected and intriguing layer in this middle episode, helmed with bold assurance by James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), is Hunter’s struggle with monogamy. Dedicated to his wife, he is nonetheless still drawn to a former flame and fellow investigator, Helen (the excellent Maxine Peake). The ostensible downtime scenes are papered with good-nights at hotel room doors, professional exchanges laden with personal subtexts, the impulse to confess and the fight against capitulation. Even more than in the first episode, the conclusion is a shock.
Sharply directed by Anand Tucker using the Red One camera, “1983” immediately rewards faithful viewers with a trip back to 1974 to reveal the foundation of the policemen’s mafia. “To the North,” they toast one another, “where we do what we want.” This phrase, among others, is laid in too frequently, while other matters are rushed through so hastily that it’s hard to know exactly what’s happened.
But there are so many faces of Yorkshire evil that it takes nearly the final two hours to reveal them all. Reluctantly leading the climactic look-see is tubby solicitor John Piggott (Mark Addy), who is pushed into representing the appeal of the dimwitted fellow long ago convicted of the child abductions. The latter’s evident innocence opens the field to discovering the true culprits, whose identities have been hinted at all along, even if proof is another matter.
Also coming to fore are former police kingpin Bill Molloy, a role the deep-voiced, toadlike British TV vet Warren Clarke seizes in the trilogy’s most indelible and emblematic performance; Morrissey’s troubled new chief; and wispy, mysterious street hustler BJ (Robert Sheehan).
The cumulative impact of “Red Riding,” adapted with great finesse by Tony Grisoni (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Tideland”), is weighty, depressing and confounding: Can human nature be this bad or is it just the way the material has been shaped and slanted? How could England fall so far in a single generation, from one that stood up to Hitler to another that kills its own without blinking, and lacks the official will to deal with it?
The upside, however, and whatever consolation it may afford, is that the further dissemination of “Red Riding” will serve to remind and reaffirm that world-class dramatic work continues to be done in the country.