The Red Riding Trilogy

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…all good children go to heaven.”

You wouldn’t believe it at the start of the grim trilogy of films that aired on British television in 2009 and were released in art-houses stateside in early 2010 (and new to DVD this month).  Spanning almost a decade (from 1974 to 1983) and following a labyrinthine plot involving missing children, serial killers, conspiracy theories and corrupt police officers in northern Britain’s Yorkshire area, The Red Riding Trilogy is hard-hitting, trippy, convoluted stuff…the stuff of communal M-like nightmares.

The first thing that is so striking about the films is their look – dripping in period detail and directorial chutzpah that’s like Godfather-era Francis Ford Coppola as channeled through Danish Dogme ’95.  From a critical standpoint, the consistent tone running through all of the films is even more astounding when you realize each part was directed, edited, scored and photographed by different teams.  The first two parts were directed by Julian Jarrold and James Marsh respectively, and it’s only in the superior third part (1983, directed by Anand Tucker) do we see any kind of deviation, and that’s only in a few powerfully placed auteuristic flourishes involving flashbacks and voice-overs.

I’m not sure how closely the stories tie into the real events that inspired them.  In an interesting comment thread that followed Allan Fish’s insightful post about the films over at Wonders in the Dark, the British Fish was apt to point out to an American left somewhat cold by the trilogy that, “…it resonates a lot more, a helluva lot more, because we lived it.”  Fish was so bold as to name the trilogy the third greatest achievement of the last decade, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I do think the films can speak just as powerfully to those who have never stepped foot on the British Isles. 

Adapted by screenwriter Toni Grisoni from the novels by David Peace, the films evidentially play liberally with the source material.  In fact, one whole book (1977) is left unaddressed entirely, and that combined with almost all of the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions displayed through visual cues, leaves one wishing some characters were explored or explained more deeply.  Inherent to most neo-noir, the films are plot-driven, and often characters become inaccessible or lost within the mechanics of the events piloting the course of the story.

Though certain characters and subplots weave in and out of the trilogy, each film is pointedly focused:

  • In 1974, we witness a young, arrogant reporter (Andrew Garfield – somewhat annoying) who gets in way over his head while investigating the disappearance (and murders) of three little girls.  Most memorable here is the always oddly alluring Rebecca Hall playing against type as a blonde bombshell. 
  • In 1980, the story shifts focus to a special investigator (Paddy Constantine – excellent) looking into the notorious Yorkshire Ripper cases.  The highlight here is the opening montage that perfectly captures the essence of the terror that grabbed Yorkshire by the throat. 
  • 1983 brings the stories full circle and divides its attention between a corrupt cop (David Morrissey – superb) looking to make things right, and a down-and-out solicitor (Mark Addy – quietly devastating) learning the truth about his hometown’s dark secrets. 
  • There are some characters who do appear in all three parts (among them a socially conscious reverend, a young male prostitute named BJ, and Morrissey’s cop) – but there’s one in particular that leaves the most lasting impression – the Yorkshire mining neighborhood of Fitzwilliam, whose decent into increasingly doomed decrepitude is masterfully captured by the three cinematographers over the course of the decade.

While the first two parts go through the motions (and are as compelling as they are confusing) – it’s only in part three where you realize the true scope and moral of the tale.  The films are best watched in succession over the course of three nights.  To achieve the payoff, it requires patience and an investment in the overall vision.

(Potential Spoilers Ahead)

What’s so fascinating is how part three preys on audience expectations and turns certain things thought to be true on their heads.  Characters who were at first sympathetic (the community activist reverend, played eerily well by Peter Mullan) are revealed to be anything but, while other minor characters (like BJ) achieve a form of redemption as we learn about their traumatic pasts.  The turnabout of David Morrissey’s character is especially intriguing, and it is in his actions where the audience can find catharsis.  Likewise Mark Addy’s solicitor is a prime example of someone in dire straits reaching deep down and doing the right thing, even if they do a number of wrong things before getting there.  This isn’t to say everything becomes crystal clear…there is sill much confusion with flashbacks, and just who really was behind it all is up for debate.  Some guilty parties still seemingly escape the claws of justice, while other innocents paid too dearly a price.

While so many modern films seems to enjoy showing us the banality of evil, The Red Riding Trilogy shows just how insidious evil can be – how it can trump even our most horrific imaginations.  They say absolute power corrupts absolutely, but what these stories show is that there is no such thing as absolute power.  In a free democratic society, corruption seeps in slowly and infects communities like a virus and can rot them from the inside like a cancer.  Whether it’s religious leaders corrupting innocence, the rich corrupting the government, the police corrupting the citizens, or the populace turning on itself…corruption will find a way.  But so does hope…and so does the once corrupt individual wanting to right the wrongs of the corrupt community.  The total effect of the trilogy is a slow burning build-up, and by the end of part three, it’s as absolutely devastating as it is tremulously hopeful.

It seems all good children do go to heaven…but sometimes only after living through hell.

Written by David H. Schleicher


  1. I didn’t read the spoilers part – I want to check this out. You dragged me in with the first line.

    Dory – the trilogy is well worth the effort if you can invest the time. Thanks for stopping by and reading! –DHS

  2. Great piece here David. I loved this series of movies and agree with Allan Fish that they are among the greatest of the aughts. It is chalk full of fantastic performances including Morrissey and Addy, who you mention, but I also loved Andrew Garfield (how could you not love his performance?!?!), Rebecca Hall, and in a great supporting role Robert Sheehan as BJ.

    In the tradition of classic film noir like “The Big Sleep”, it had a convoluted plot. What made it harder to follow is I have read the first two novels of David Peace’s series (of four), 1974 and 1977. There are many characters and storylines that are left out or folded into others. I have had trouble keeping track of what happened in which book or movie. In fact “1977” wasn’t made into a movie but many of its elements are incorporated into “1983” including the psychic and the bunker under the chicken coop (but an entirely different character was the child killer). But I need to read the next two books to really understand how rich these stories are.

    I think Allan is wrong about one thing though. I don’t think this movie is stronger for Brits because “they lived it.” I think anyone who lives in a city with a history of a systematically corrupt police force can relate. Here in Los Angeles we have a long legacy of police and municipal corruption, stylishly documented, however free with the facts, by James Ellroy. “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia” are a couple of his books where he places Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s in the same corrupt position Peace placed Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s. In both places we find that when the police begin bending the law to suit their needs, however minor the bending may seem, the repercussions can be extraordinarily evil. Because once they bend this law, why can’t these others, or all others be flaunted as well? We see just how horrible that cycle can play out in Ellroy’s books and the Red Riding Trilogy.

    Jason, something about Garfield’s performance struck me as smug – not sure if it was the character or the actor, but I didn’t care for either. Did you hear Ridley Scott is planning a Hollywood remake? I don’t understand that all – so much was already condensed from the books apparently for the trilogy – and to try to condense it even further down to one two hour-film – absolutely ridiculous. –DHS

    • I hadn’t heard about the Ridley Scott thing, but doing some research I have a feeling nothing will happen with it. He has like 24 movies in development right now. But I have to say I don’t have a problem with someone remaking it though I’m not sure Ridley Scott is the guy to do it. He hasn’t been my favorite director over the past ten years or so. But I get your discomfort. Instead of transplanting a story unique to a time and place, why not come up with an original story. It is lazy, though not necessarily tragic. It might turn out great, but I doubt it.

      Jason, I think the laziness of such endeavors is what always annoys me. I hope you are right and the idea falls by the wayside. –DHS

  3. I love this trilogy (for me it’s in the top ten televised programmes of the decade) and think you’ve put some really interesting thoughts down here, especially in terms of the cohesive look achieved with three different directors. I have to say though that I loved Andrew Garfield and the first film is my favourite, though I agree that the emotional resonance and conclusion of the third part if heartbreaking at the same time as it’s a relief, almost.

    Great post.

    Thanks for joining The Spin, MissTransmission! The cumulative effect of the trilogy packed quite a wallop. There were a lot of nice touches (great use of foreshadowing and voice-overs) in the third part, plus that catharsis, which is why I think it was the superior piece, but you are not alone in finding the first part (and Garfield’s performance) the best of the bunch. Your new blog seems well timed for the new fall TV season in the US, but does the UK do a similar autumnal launch of a gaggle of new shows? –DHS

  4. Yes, it’s a slow build-up, and the themes are intertwined. I can see well why Allan felt the way he did in rating this to the rafters, though I don’t necessarily feel it’s resonance is exclusive Brits. I believe Part 1 is the most powerful, but they work as a unit. Here is the key here and you say it quite brilliantly:

    “While so many modern films seems to enjoy showing us the banality of evil, The Red Riding Trilogy shows just how insidious evil can be – how it can trump even our most horrific imaginations. They say absolute power corrupts absolutely, but what these stories show is that there is no such thing as absolute power. In a free democratic society, corruption seeps in slowly and infects communities like a virus and can rot them from the inside like a cancer. Whether it’s religious leaders corrupting innocence, the rich corrupting the government, the police corrupting the citizens, or the populace turning on itself…corruption will find a way.”

    Sam, ah, another vote for part one, I see. –DHS

  5. I’ve watched only the first part so far, with the others soon to follow, and at this point I’m most impressed. Always fascinating, it was at times puzzling, so it’s good to hear it will all become clear in the end. I’m especially pleased you singled out Rebecca Hall for special mention in the first part. Like you I think she gave the outstanding performance of the many fine ones in this episode. Her brittle exterior/soft interior turn just astonished me.

    R.D. – Yes, Rebecca Hall is developing into quite the compelling chameleon of an actress. She was great here, as she has been in everything I have seen of her thus far (The Prestige, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Please Give among the best). –DHS

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